The United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is a federal agency that has one key mission: to combat the sale and use of harmful drugs within the borders of the United States of America. It is a big job, and the DEA has a big labor force as a result. According to the organization’s website, there are nearly 5,000 special agents working in the DEA today, with a budget of $2.02 billion.
The DEA handles all sorts of tasks, from busting drug dealers to organizing prescription painkiller takeback programs. But there is one DEA task that is of prime interest to people who use drugs and their families. That task involves making a list, or schedule, of drugs that are considered part of the DEA’s purview.
Understanding the List
The DEA’s list is broken into five categories, and the organization’s website suggests that those classifications are based on the drug’s use as medicine and its abuse or dependency potential.
The five categories include:
- Schedule I: These drugs have no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. In the DEA’s mind, these are the most dangerous drugs available.
- Schedule II: These drugs do have a medical use, but they also have a high potential for abuse.
- Schedule III: These drugs have a medical use, but they have a moderate-to-low potential for abuse.
- Schedule IV: These drugs have a low potential for abuse or dependence, and they do have a medical use.
- Schedule V: These drugs have medical uses, and a low potential for abuse and/or dependence.
The DEA provides an account once per year of each and every drug that appears on the list. That list contains the name of the drug, along with a number generated by the DEA to identify that drug. This number is placed on arrest documents and court documents when the DEA makes a prosecution for a drug-related offense. As a result, this is a list that drug dealers and drug developers pay very close attention to. Handling drugs on this list could lead to fines or jail time, so they need to know what appears here and what does not.
The list is fairly exhaustive. In one version made available online, there are dozens of drugs listed on a single page of the list, and the list goes on for 14 pages. Officials at the DEA take the job of spotting dangerous drugs very seriously, and they create an exhaustive list to make that task easier to complete.
But it is important to note that the DEA list comes with a few key disclaimers. For example, drugs that do not appear on this list but that are structurally similar to the drugs on this list could still be subject to DEA action. This is designed to help dissuade eager chemists who hope to tweak one molecule of a known drug and sell it without incurring DEA ire. If that drug is similar to a drug on the list, it is still considered illegal and dangerous. There are no workarounds.
What the List Means to You
Many people consult this list when they are working with lawyers on drug-related charges that stem from an arrest or a DEA raid. But some people use the list to help guide their drug-use choices. These people want to get high, but they want to avoid getting arrested. Looking through this list and choosing drugs that do not appear on the list can seem like a smart idea, although it is hard to find drugs that do not make some kind of appearance.
Some people also pick drugs of choice and try to get them removed from the list altogether. Advocates of marijuana have been trying to do this since that drug first appeared on the list in the 1970s, according to the International Business Times.
Removing a drug from the DEA list or downgrading it is not easy. Advocates need to point to evidence that the drug has a unique medical purpose and/or that it is not associated with high levels of abuse or dependence. That research may seem easy to find, but researchers may not be able to come to the conclusions activists want. And there’s no guarantee that the DEA will listen to that research.
Activists sometimes turn to the courts to plead for a change in the DEA list. Court cases in which a drug has been proven effective in a medical case could spark paperwork that downgrades a drug from the highest to lower levels of DEA supervision.
Some activists lobby members of Congress to get them to pass resolutions that would merit a review of a drug’s addictiveness level. A review does not guarantee that the drug will shift on or drop off a list, but Congress members are sometimes willing to help if given enough of a push.
Putting a drug on the list seems a little easier. When new drugs enter the American mainstream, they are often associated with hospital reports and news coverage. Doctors, police officers, and other first responders ask the DEA to do something about the new threat, and sometimes, the president steps in with an executive order that places a new drug on the list.
The Bottom Line
The DEA uses this list to separate very dangerous drugs from those that are slightly less dangerous. But it is important to remember that any drug comes with risks, and almost any drug could become addictive in time. The best way to stay safe does not involve parsing the list and looking for loopholes. The best way to stay safe involves stopping any use of drugs now — before the DEA gets involved and mandates a change.
Treatment for addictions is remarkably effective, and when it is used early in the drug abuse process, it can be quick. Rather than parsing the list, people should parse the list of treatment teams available to them, and they should make an informed choice about the care they need, right now, in order to get better.