Why Are Marijuana and Heroin Classified the Same Way by the Government?

lots of pills showing the scheduling system of drugs in the U.S

There are a lot of words that get thrown around with marijuana, especially having to do with its legal status in the United States. Most of these conversations start with “illegal,” tip-toe around “policy,” and typically land on classification.

Cannabis is a Schedule 1 illegal drug, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). What does that mean? What does that entail? And what, for Mary Jane's sake, does it mean to be a Schedule 1 drug?

Green Entrepreneur put it perhaps the best: "In 1970, the federal government declared marijuana more dangerous than cocaine, meth, oxycodone, and fentanyl. Its never changed its mind."

That's right: in short, a Schedule 1 drug is the worst kind of drug, known for being dangerous and totally off-limits for consumption. Well, it's 2018, and we know that marijuana does not deserve this damaging reputation; instead, the plant has proved itself a safe and beneficial all-natural source of both fun and healing benefits.

Who's in Charge Here?

pharmacist putting pills away

When it comes to marijuana's classification as a Schedule 1 drug, we have the federal Drug Enforcement Administration to thank. The DEA was established in 1973 by President Nixon, as a response to the growing rate of drug use in the US. Before then, all things narcotics-related were operated through several small agencies in the government.

Part of Nixon's presidential platform was dedicated to combating drug use from the get-go. It was unsurprising when he created the DEA through an executive order. This new group gave a new power to the Attorney General, giving them overall oversight of the organization.

Scheduling was created in the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, where it listed out examples of dangerous narcotics, including marijuana. It was added to the list, citing no medicinal benefit, with a high chance of abuse and addiction for consumers. Cannabis remains on that list today, which is still overseen by both the attorney general and the officers at the DEA.


line of pill bottles


The drug scheduling system was created to classify the level of danger associated with narcotics. According to the DEA, there are five different levels, ranked according to potential medicinal uses as well as the "potential for dependency and abuse." Schedule I is considered the most intense, with the highest potential for danger and abuse – each level decreases until Schedule 5, which is the mildest of groups.

And while it might seem like a permanent listing, there is a way to change the classification; drugs can be rescheduled by petitioning the DEA. There is no guarantee, however, as demonstrated by the many years of petitions on behalf of marijuana's status as a Schedule 1 drug.

Schedule 5

The drugs in this category contain very little narcotics, and present very little danger associated with taking them. Cough syrup is a Schedule 5 substance.

Schedule 4

Schedule 4 drugs (supposedly) have a very low potential for dependence and/or abuse. Examples include Ambien, Xanax, and Valium.

Schedule 3

The DEA considers Schedule 3 drugs to have a "moderate to low potential for physical or psychological dependence." Some of these narcotics include less than 90 millimeters of steroids, testosterone, codeine, or ketamine.

Schedule 2

These narcotics are considered dangerous with a significant potential for abuse. Many of these are high-powered drugs given by doctors for severe conditions, like Vicodin, Adderall, fentanyl, oxycodone, methadone, methamphetamine, Ritalin, and cocaine. You heard that right: cocaine is labeled less dangerous than weed, according to the federal government.

Schedule 1

Schedule 1 drugs are described as "narcotics with no currently accepted medical use and the highest potential for abuse." The front-runners are heroin, ecstasy, methaqualone (Quaaludes), peyote, LSD, and – you guessed it – marijuana.

Problems with Marijuana as a Schedule 1

jars of marijuana on black background

While many states – around 30 – have legalized cannabis in some form, the federal classification as a Schedule 1 is holding marijuana back. And it's not just the herb itself that struggles; consumers, patients, and innovators within the industry are faced with lots of red tape and restriction over an outdated ruling.

A major problem with the Schedule 1 drug distinction is its influence on everyday business: cannabis businesses don’t have access to basic banking services. Banks, which are run by the federal government, are not legally able to work with money related to marijuana, because they report to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). These services are anything from loans to lines of credit to a basic account. Cannabis businesses – dispensaries, edibles bakeries, etc. – have to deal completely in cash, which limits potential for growth, and increases chances of theft, since there's not an institutionalized vault to store it in.

Also on the business side of things, marijuana-related operations are met in full force by a hefty tax law that was created 35 years ago to combat trafficking of high-scheduled substances. Section 280E disallows any deductions or credits for any connection to Schedule 1 and 2 drugs. These businesses are dished out very high tax rates (around 70 to 90 percent, according to Fool.com), while missing out on corporate deductions that would help them thrive.

Perhaps most importantly, the DEA classification of marijuana is extremely irresponsible because it restricts cannabis research. Since weed is deemed dangerous with a high potential for addiction, there is red tape in the way of running clinical trials that would use scientific reasoning to determine the actual risks and benefits of consuming marijuana. This might, once and for all, put those damaging claims to rest.

CBD Rescheduling

cbd oil on top of pile of rocks

In other news, the DEA recently announced that drugs with a THC content below 0.1 percent have been moved from a Schedule 1 drug classification into a Schedule 5 classification, as long as they have been okayed by the United States Food and Drug Administration. This mainly includes CBD products.

This is fortuitous for several key reasons. First, as a direct result of this announcement, the U.S has its first non-synthetic cannabis medicine on the market, approved by a federal government agency. This is a big deal for CBD producers, patients, and those that know and understand the healing properties of CBD.

It is also a big step forward, for an underlying reason: this announcement acknowledges that the DEA has admitted that cannabis has medicinal value.

If you recall, Schedule 1 drugs maintain that title because there is zero accepted medical use or potential for it. This is a major admission, and could lead to doors opening for reclassification cases and petitions. This is a big indicator that the DEA is starting to shift their views, and slowly move from a stance of opposition to support.

This is the very first time that the DEA has lowered cannabis of any form from a Schedule 1 drug. CBD-dominant products could potentially be on the market soon, hopefully followed by further education. End game: THC-dominant cannabis moving down several classes, as the government figures out that a marijuana high is not equivalent to danger.

Waiting Game

field of marijuana plants

Marijuana is still considered a Schedule 1 drug – that’s the current reality, marked by the DEA. It does not, however, mean that hope is lost, or that the classification is permanent. In the meantime, consider educating yourself, your family, and your friends on cannabis – the good, the iffy, the science, and the medicinal history of the plant – CBD and THC alike.

Look into reclassification petitions, local activism groups, and weed reform information. And, if you live in a state with legalized recreational marijuana, embrace hope that those laws will someday spread and be accepted on a federal level throughout the US.