WASHINGTON (MEDIA GENERAL) – While doctors can prescribe patients medical marijuana in 23 states, they legally cannot study how it affects their illnesses. But that could soon be changing.

Federal policy classifies marijuana – medical and recreational – as a Schedule I drug. That label means the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) treats weed as equal to heroin, ecstasy and LSD.

Paradoxically, drugs like cocaine and meth fall into lower, looser categories which do allow clinical research.

Here’s how the DEA describes marijuana:

“Schedule I drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Schedule I drugs are the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence.“

But the movement to federally reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II drug, like cocaine, is picking up steam.

2016 Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton broke news by publicly backing a federal reclassification, knocking marijuana down from Schedule I to Schedule II. It was the cautious candidate’s first time lending her voice to the cause.

With medical marijuana laws spreading, Clinton says reclassification is now a necessity, explaining, “Researchers at universities, at the National Institutes of Health, could start researching what’s the best way to use it, how much dose does somebody need, how does it interact with other medications.”

Other Democrats in the 2016 race are already comfortable in the marijuana overhaul camp.

Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley has stopped short of supporting full pot legalization, but, like Clinton, endorsed a marijuana reclassification. The New York Times reports that O’Malley told pro-pot advocates in September he would like to see more research, but said, “I’m not there yet,” when asked about wholly legalizing recreational marijuana.

The field’s far-left candidate is there on pot decriminalization.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), who is running for the Democratic nomination for president, introduced the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2015, which would abolish the DEA’s blanket marijuana ban and allow “states to decide whether they want to legalize pot for recreational or medical use without federal intervention.”

The real regulatory problem is a chicken-and-egg issue according to Fernanda Alonso, a lawyer with Georgetown Law’s O’Neill Institute. Before green-lighting reclassification, Alonso explains, federal regulators want to see scientific evidence that marijuana is safe to study, but the wholesale Schedule I ban on marijuana prevents any body of research from being developed. The end result: no reliable research, no reclassification.

Here’s the cycle:

CDC requests review → FDA finds limited research → No reclassification

“We need scientific evidence to know whether actual benefits to medical marijuana, whether there are harms of using recreational marijuana,” explains Alonso. She continued, “In order to have this information, we need to reclassify it so we can have scientific and medical research.”

A handful of regulating entities overlap when it comes to drug classification jurisdiction, including: President, U.S. Senate, House of Representatives, Centers for Disease Control, Federal Drug Administration and Department of Justice.

In response to Clinton’s recent shift on reclassification, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest tempered public expectations for imminent change, telling media, “Our policy when it comes to marijuana hasn’t changed and I’m not aware of any policy process that’s underway to change it right now.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) argues that the current marijuana classification system works well, saying, “You don’t have to reschedule it to get research done.” Grassley cited limited marijuana research underway at the University of Iowa as an example of progress under the Justice Department’s existing guidelines.

Furthermore, Grassley places trust in the FDA’s current review of marijuana literature, despite previous inquiries yielding no classification adjustments in the past.

Grassley fears what will happen if the issue is knocked down to the state level, as proposed in previous legislation, saying, “You end up with 50 different policies on marijuana, and we thought that was a bad thing to do.”

Other conservative Judiciary Committee members disagree, preferring a state-based approach to medicinal — not recreational — marijuana.

Republican Sen. David Perdue of Georgia advocates for the elimination of broad federal regulations in favor of leaving medical marijuana laws to individual states, citing the Peach State’s medical marijuana program.

“I believe this is a states issue, and one that we need to stay away from on the federal level,” explains Perdue.

Until the FDA issues a new ruling on marijuana, Sen. Grassley says not to expect a bill to pass through his committee.

If a Democrat is elected president in 2016, a nationwide shift could quickly follow. But for the time being, patients in 23 states and the District of Columbia will continue to have access to state-authorized medical marijuana, while four states and D.C. allow recreational weed.Copyright 2015 MEDIA GENERAL. All rights reserved.