A Brief History of Cannabis Rescheduling Petitions in the United States

On October 6, 2022, President Joe Biden called upon the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Attorney General to “initiate the administrative process” to review whether cannabis is properly categorized under federal law as a Schedule I controlled substance. Such substances are defined as possessing “a high potential for abuse;” “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States;” and a “lack of accepted safety for … use … under medical supervision.”

This is not the first time that federal agencies have undertaken a review of cannabis’ Schedule I status. Since 1972, multiple groups have petitioned HHS and DEA to conduct similar reviews, each of which have failed to result in any change in cannabis’ scheduling under federal law.

In 1972, NORML filed the first ever administrative petition to review cannabis’ Schedule I status. This resulted in a favorable ruling in 1988 from the DEA’s own Administrative Law Judge, who determined that cannabis did not meet the criteria of a Schedule I controlled substance. However, in 1990, then DEA Administrator John Lawn set aside this ruling. Following additional legal challenges, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1994 chose to let Lawn’s decision stand.

In 1995, former NORML Director Jon Gettman filed another administrative rescheduling petition. The DEA denied this petition in 2001.

In 2002, a coalition of groups including NORML filed yet a third rescheduling petition. For several years, the DEA failed to respond to this petition, forcing parties to sue in federal court in order to compel the agency to take action. The DEA denied the petition in 2011.

A final rescheduling petition was filed later that year on behalf of the Governors of Rhode Island and Washington. The DEA denied their petition in 2016.