Congress Members Urge President to Remove Marijuana from Federal Schedule I Designation: Would This Affect Pennsylvania Law?

By: Dave Mueller, Criminal Defense Attorney

A number of reports in the media this week have highlighted a letter sent by several members of Congress to President Barack Obama, urging the president to use his executive power to change the way marijuana is designated under Federal law. The letter urges the president to order the US Justice Department to move marijuana from the most restrictive “Schedule I” designation to a less restrictive “Schedule II” or “Schedule III” designation. This move could ease the longstanding Federal prohibition on medicinal marijuana use that is otherwise legal under the law of some states.

As a current Schedule I controlled substance under Federal law, marijuana is considered to:

have no currently accepted medical use in the United States, a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse

The reason that this distinction matters in the current legal climate is that some states have passed laws permitting the medicinal use of marijuana by prescription. However, because Federal law recognizes no accepted medical use of Schedule I controlled substances, the possession and distribution of marijuana for medicinal purposes is a criminal offense under Federal law regardless of state law. By contrast, drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine and hydrocodone are classified under Federal law as Schedule II and can be legally prescribed by physicians without violating Federal law.

The question being asked in Pennsylvania is whether such a move by the Federal government would have any effect on Pennsylvania law regarding marijuana. At this time, the short answer is: not without a change in state law. By Pennsylvania regulation (existing independently of Federal regulation), marijuana is designated by the PA Department of Health to be a Schedule I controlled substance. The Pennsylvania Schedule I definition is nearly identical to the Federal definition, in that it includes drugs determined by that department to have:

a high potential for abuse; no currently accepted medical use in the United States; and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision.

Under Pennsylvania law, possession, manufacture or delivery of any substance designated under Pennsylvania regulation as Schedule I is a criminal offense, and Pennsylvania law currently has no exceptions for medicinal marijuana use. Accordingly, a change in the Federal designation would have no effect on Pennsylvania criminal law unless there is both: 1) a change in state regulations re-designating marijuana as Schedule II or III controlled substance; and 2) a change in state law permitting physicians to write prescriptions for its use.

Although the culture surrounding marijuana use nationwide has become more permissive, law enforcement efforts in Pennsylvania have not, and it is important for anyone facing criminal charges related to marijuana to have the help of a PA criminal defense attorney. Marijuana distribution felonies can carry mandatory minimum sentences as high as 5-10 years in prison. Even small possession convictions can leave an individual with a criminal record that cannot be erased. If you, or anyone you know, is charged with, or may be charged with, a criminal offense involving marijuana, contact us today for a no-charge consultation.

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