Rescheduling vs. Legalizing Marijuana: What’s the Difference?

The Washington rumor mill has been alive with suggestions that the Biden administration will legalize marijuana by way of a future budget package. They can do so without GOP interference thanks to budget bills no longer being subject to Senate filibusters. But what exactly does Biden have in mind? Is he thinking rescheduling or complete legalization?

From a purely technical standpoint, rescheduling would make marijuana legal at the federal level. But in the vernacular, there is a significant difference between the two. People who call for marijuana’s complete legalization want it freely available to all. Rescheduling would not accomplish that.

Marijuana’s Current Scheduling

Federal law currently has marijuana classified as a Schedule I-controlled substance. This means it is completely illegal in Washington’s eyes. All of the drugs on the Schedule I list are illegal because regulators believe they have no legitimate medical use and are risky in terms of addiction potential.

We can debate all day long whether or not marijuana belongs on that list. But as long as it remains a Schedule I substance, states with medical and recreational marijuana programs are in violation of federal law. They have only been allowed to get away with it because Washington has decided against enforcement.

What Rescheduling Does

Proponents of rescheduling marijuana propose dropping it from the Schedule I list down to the Schedule II list. That would put it in the company of drugs like fentanyl and oxycodone. Doing so has multiple legal implications.

First and foremost, it would no longer be illegal under federal law to grow marijuana. States could regulate growing operations to facilitate medical applications. Second, it would open the door to nearly unlimited research. Right now, marijuana research is severely restricted due to the drug’s federal status.

As previously explained, rescheduling technically makes marijuana legal in the U.S. However, it still allows federal and state regulators to control how it is produced, processed, distributed, and used. Rescheduling would help conservative states like Utah, where lawmakers are committed to ensuring that marijuana remains strictly a medicinal product.

What Legalization Does

Recreational marijuana proponents do not want to see the drug rescheduled. They want to see it de-scheduled, which is to say fully decriminalized. Completely removing it from the federal government’s list of controlled substances would allow states to do as they please.

In a perfect world, this would mean little practical difference between visiting a dispensary to buy medical marijuana in Park City, UT and buying it off the street from a Provo dealer. But is complete deregulation possible?

It is possible, though not likely. Assuming federal lawmakers move to decriminalize marijuana in the future, the chances of them taking a hands-off approach are slim to none. Any attempt to legalize marijuana opens the door to tax revenues. Do you know any lawmaker who can resist the opportunity to raise taxes?

Regulated Like Alcohol

Full legalization would undoubtedly lead to federal control similar to what alcohol producers and distributors are now subject to. In case you didn’t know, Congress passed legislation in the aftermath of the end the prohibition to give Washington complete control over alcohol production.

Let’s say you decided to start making whiskey. You would have to get federal approval first. Moreover, everything you produced would technically belong to the government. You would have to buy that whiskey back before you could sell it to distributors. A similar arrangement is bound to be forced on marijuana production should it ever be federally legalized.

Now you know the difference between rescheduling and fully legalizing marijuana. Which way do you think Washington should go?