Drug policy watchers learned earlier this month that the latest substance to earn Schedule I status is the obscure plant called kratom. So what’s Schedule I? By the letter of the law, Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act contains “drugs, substances, or chemicals” that meet the following criteria:
The drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse.
The drug or other substance has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.
There is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.
In this post, I’m not going to consider the penalties that apply to the use, possession, or sale of Schedule I substances. I’m just going to look at the criteria for inclusion. While they may appear plausible, these criteria are preposterous and completely indefensible as applied.
The most important unwritten fact about Schedule I is that all three of its criteria are terms of political art. Neither science nor the plain meanings of the words have much to do with what Schedule I really includes.
We can see this first in how Schedule I fails to include many substances that clearly belong there. These substances easily meet all three criteria. Yet they are in no danger whatsoever of being scheduled. It literally will never happen.
Solvent inhalants, such as toluene, have a high potential for abuse, have no accepted medical uses, and cannot be used safely even with close medical supervision. The same is true of obsolete anesthetics like diethyl ether and chloroform. Toluene, ether, and chloroform are all dangerous when used as drugs. Overdosing on each is relatively easy, they bring serious health risks at any level of use, and they have no valid medical uses today.
None, of course, will ever be scheduled, because each is also an essential industrial chemical. That they happen to be abusable as drugs is a fact that a crime-based drug policy can’t easily accommodate. And so that fact is simply ignored.
The substances included on Schedule I are an odd lot as well. Some clearly meet the criteria, but many do not.
Why, for example, is fenethylline Schedule I, while amphetamine is in the less restrictive Schedule II? On ingestion, fenethylline breaks down into two other compounds: theophylline – a caffeine-like molecule found in chocolate – and amphetamine.
People commonly use amphetamine under medical supervision in the United States; the popular ADHD drug Adderall is simply a mixture of various forms of amphetamine. Theophylline has also seen use by physicians for care of various respiratory issues. And people still use fenethylline under medical supervision in other countries. In the published literature, fenethylline is described as having a “lower abuse potential and little actual abuse compared to amphetamine.” (Emphasis added.) To say that fenethylline has “no accepted medical use in the United States” is, quite literally, to suggest that medical science changes when you cross the border.
Fenethylline isn’t unique. Schedule I contains many drugs quite like it, molecules that bear a close but not exact resemblance to familiar and widely used medical drugs. Many of these are prodrugs – substances that break down in the body to become familiar, medically useful molecules like morphine or amphetamine. Others, like dimethylamphetamine, are held by the medical literature to be safer than their less strictly regulated chemical cousins.
This is not to say that fenethylline, dimethylamphetamine, or amphetamine itself is risk-free. No drug is. But one could hardly find a less rational set of classifications than this one, in which drugs are scheduled more severely if and when they are less risky.
Or consider psilocybin. Psilocybin flunks the first criterion for Schedule I because it is in fact fairly difficult to abuse. Psilocybin binges don’t generally happen because even a single dose creates a swift and strong tolerance response: A second dose, or an added dose of any other traditional psychedelic, usually does little or nothing, and doses after that will likely be inert until several days have elapsed.
A user may have a regrettable or upsetting psilocybin experience, and many do. But users can’t have a binge, and deaths and serious illnesses are exceedingly rare. Psilocybin isn’t an entirely risk-free drug – again, no drug is risk-free – but it’s clearly not in the same league as cocaine (Schedule II) or even ketamine (Schedule III). Going by the letter of the law, psilocybin’s place on Schedule I is inexplicable.
Still more inexplicable is cannabis, which has a relatively low potential for abuse, many important medical uses, and such a favorable safety profile that a life-threatening overdose is impossible. Too much cannabis can be deeply psychologically unpleasant, but it can’t be fatal.
As you all know, cannabis is Schedule I.
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