Marijuana activists hoping the DEA might finally move to legalize the drug got bad news in August, though it probably wasn’t unexpected.
The federal anti-drug agency announced Aug. 11 that it would not reschedule cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (CSA). That listing includes heroin, LSD, and synthetic pot – all drugs that are banned for any use because the federal government considers them especially addictive, especially hazardous, and medically useless.
At best, the DEA announcement means a slower path to federal legalization. At worst, it means the Department of Justice still has the power to end legalization at the state level.
But it also came just a day after the Obama administration said it would remove a major barrier to marijuana research. Currently scientists must obtain the drug from a small farm at the University of Mississippi, a farm that doesn’t provide nearly enough cannabis to meet research needs.
Obstructing research into cannabis
Until recent months, the DEA, the FDA, and other government agencies have blocked studies into the potential benefits of medical cannabis. That has started to change as the agencies have cleared at least one major study into the drug’s effect on patients with PTSD.
Four states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for any use while another 21 allow it as medicine. The DEA’s decision leaves those places at risk of a federal crackdown, though Obama has applied an increasingly hands-off approach to state-level legalization.
The announcement was a response to two petitions, including one filed by members of Congress, asking the DEA to review its ban on cannabis, with an eye toward rescheduling the drug. Activists have pushed for such a change several times in the past, and it was always unlikely the agency would agree this time around.
DEA decision conflicts with most scientic evidence
Officials said they based their decision on “a scientific and medical evaluation” by the FDA, the agency tasked with clearing medications for public use. Researchers there determined that cannabis has no medical benefit – a conclusion that conflicts with most scientific evidence.
DEA officials said in August that medical marijuana should be subject to standard FDA trials, which include multiple phases and can take several years to complete. This approach could actually make it harder for patients to get the cannabis they need by opening the door to a federal crackdown on doctors who recommend pot without FDA approval.
“The DEA and the FDA continue to believe that scientifically valid and well-controlled clinical trials conducted under investigational new drug (IND) applications are the most appropriate way to conduct research on the medicinal uses of marijuana,” the DEA said in its announcement.
The agency’s decision will perpetuate a Catch-22 for scientists who want to study marijuana and its benefits. Because the drug is listed on schedule 1 of the CSA, it is nearly impossible for researchers to get their hands on it. The Obama administration’s new policy may lessen that problem, but the DEA could continue using cannabis’ legal designation to prevent further studies that don’t focus on the drug’s alleged harms.
“Science has been shackled by politics for decades,” said Dr. Sue Sisley, a former researcher at the University of Arizona who said she was let go because of a major cannabis study she was conducting. “Controlled trials couldn’t be done without begging” the government.
What you think: What does the DEA’s decision mean for the future of legal marijuana? Will the next president push the agency to reschedule the drug? Leave a comment.