Last week, the DEA rejected a five-year-old petition signed by two governors to change marijuana’s status from a “Schedule I” narcotic, the same category as more dangerous drugs like LSD and heroin. The decision essentially puts the federal government at odds with the 25 states (and the District of Columbia) that have legalized at least some form of medical cannabis use. Here’s everything you need to know about the decision.
By retaining the Schedule I classification for cannabis, the DEA has reaffirmed its previous position that there is “no currently accepted medical use” for the drug and that it has “a high potential for abuse.” In his letter explaining the decision, acting DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg wrote that marijuana “does not have a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.”
“The FDA drug approval process for evaluating potential medicines has worked effectively in this country for more than 50 years,” he wrote. “It is a thorough, deliberate and exacting process grounded in science, and properly so, because the safety of our citizens relies on it.”
“If the scientific understanding about marijuana changes — and it could change — then the decision could change,” he added. “But we will remain tethered to science, as we must, and as the statute demands.”
One reason for the lack of rigorous scientific testing on the drug, of course, is the federal government’s restrictions on obtaining it, which are exacerbated by its classification as a Schedule I narcotic, creating a cyclical, Catch 22-type scenario. From the Washington Post:
For instance, last fall, a Brookings Institution report slammed the federal government for “stifling medical research” in the area of marijuana policy. As a Schedule 1 drug, it’s much harder for researchers to work with marijuana than with many other controlled substances. The American Academy of Pediatrics has called on the government to move marijuana into Schedule 2 to facilitate more research into medical uses.
Forbes notes that many common, over-the-counter drugs like aspirin and caffeine come from plants that, if ingested in a different form, have side effects that range from gastric bleeding to death. Even the drugs that contribute to, and arguably created, the current opiate crisis in the United States are categorized as Schedule II because they have “currently accepted medical use in treatment.” Those drugs, which include oxycodone and morphine, kill over 16,000 people per year in the U.S.
There is some good news from the DEA’s announcement. Before the announcement, U.S. researchers looking to examine the medicinal effects of weed could only obtain it from one source, the University of Mississippi at Oxford, which grows weed under a contract with the National Institute on Drug Abuse, or NIDA. As Nature notes, the application process could be time consuming, and the university’s cannabis often had lower levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) than the weed used by regular consumers. But now the DEA is allowing any institution to apply for its own right to grow marijuana.
“It’s an incredible pleasure to see the DEA let the science speak for itself,” Rick Doblin, director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, told Nature.
Others, including Dr. Sunil Kumar Aggarwal, a New York City-based physician who studies the effects of marijuana in hospice care, also praised the DEA’s decision.
DEA will allow universities to apply to grow marijuana, three government officials said.–NIDA monopoly finally gone https://t.co/2FTfpPblr4
— Sunil KumarAggarwal (@humansunil) August 11, 2016
1 big brick in federal govt wall around cannabis being knocked out. We go f/NIDA monopoly 2academia oligopoly-universities, start ur engines
— Sunil KumarAggarwal (@humansunil) August 11, 2016
And John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told the New York Times that the decision “will create a supply of research-grade marijuana that is diverse, but more importantly, it will be competitive and you will have growers motivated to meet the demand of researchers.”
“Will this decision make it significantly easier for scientists to study the medical benefits of marijuana?” he wrote last week. “The answer sadly is: unlikely. And this is a missed opportunity that could further delay potential therapies to countless people.”
Gupta argues that while, in theory, the loosening of restrictions on researchers access is a good thing, it’s still mostly an empty gesture because of the drug’s continuing status as Schedule I. From CNN:
Potential researchers typically go to the DEA first, as it grants the license to begin scientific research. Even if a license is granted, to study a Schedule I substance, institutions must have heavy-duty safes and high-grade security systems installed, which can be expensive. There is also the more subjective consideration of getting approval from your academic institution to do the research on a Schedule I status substance in the first place. Even if individual faculty members want to do that research, the university leadership may not want the hassle or the potential fallout of bad press.
Gupta also notes the hypocrisy of the DEA’s decision to keep the drug Schedule I, which the agency’s former chief administrative law judge, Francis Young, disagreed with publicly in 1988. From Young’s petition:
“In strict medical terms marijuana is far safer than many foods we commonly consume. For example, eating 10 raw potatoes can result in a toxic response. By comparison, it is physically impossible to eat enough marijuana to induce death. Marijuana in its natural form is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man. By any measure of rational analysis marijuana can be safely used within the supervised routine of medical care.”
Twenty-eight years later, Gupta writes, not much has changed. Last year, in an editorial accompanying a study showing the, for now, limited effectiveness of medical marijuana, Yale School of Medicine professors Deepak Cyril D’Souza and Mohini Ranganathan wrote that accurate testing of the drug will require increased standards and governmental encouragement.
“Evidence justifying marijuana use for various medical conditions will require the conduct of adequately powered, double-blind, randomized, placebo/active controlled clinical trials to test its short- and long-term efficacy and safety,” they wrote. “The federal government and states should support medical marijuana research.”
To do that, declassifying marijuana as a Schedule II drug would be a great place to start.