Federal authorities Thursday announced they were standing firm on a 46-year-old policy of classifying marijuana as a dangerous narcotic with no accepted medical use.
But in a seemingly contradictory decision, the Drug Enforcement Administration also said it was lifting long-standing restrictions on cultivation to facilitate research of marijuana’s potential effectiveness as medicine for a range of conditions. That decision will end a restrictive monopoly, in which the only marijuana federally sanctioned for medical studies was grown under a government contract with the University of Mississippi.
Medical marijuana advocates had been awaiting the DEA announcement with anticipation, wondering whether the Obama administration was prepared to ease marijuana restrictions embedded in the 1970 Controlled Substances Act. The developments also were being followed by political factions in California, where passage of Proposition 64 in November would legalize marijuana for recreational use.
For years, even as the federal government has maintained strict enforcement of marijuana as an illicit substance, states have pressed forward with various levels of legalization, essentially fueling their own pot economies. In California, which made medicinal use of cannabis legal in 1996, marijuana cultivation and sales now constitute a multi-billion dollar industry. Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska have gone further, with voter-approved initiatives legalizing the use and sale of recreational marijuana.
Those states also have taken a more liberal approach to marijuana research. Since 2000, California has spent $8.7 million on state-sanctioned medical marijuana trials, with researchers from the UC system declaring that multiple clinical trials had found that pot shows strong promise as a pain reliever for a range of conditions, including nerve damage from HIV, strokes and diabetes. Researchers in another federally approved California study said marijuana showed effectiveness as a companion drug to reduce dependence on opioid prescription pain relievers.
But the government steadfastly held to its listing of marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, a classification that puts it in the ranks of heroin and LSD in terms of risk, and with fewer medical benefits than Schedule 2 drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine. In documents released Thursday, DEA acting administrator Chuck Rosenberg declared: “The known risks of marijuana have not been shown to be outweighed by specific benefits in well-controlled clinical trials that scientifically evaluate safety and efficiency.”
Dr. Igor Grant, a neuro-psychiatrist who heads the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at UC San Diego, took issue with the federal government’s continued rejection of evidence of marijuana’s medical benefits. But Grant found promise in the DEA’s decision to ease restrictions on marijuana cultivation for research, saying it may help speed approval for more studies.
“There is certainly enough information on at least short-term benefits (for marijuana) that it is just not accurate to say there is no benefit from medical use,” Grant said. “One can approach this with some degree of caution without being blind to the data that exists.”
Grant said he believed that marijuana with higher levels of the psychoactive compound tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, would be more appropriately listed as a Schedule 2 drug, and that marijuana with lower THC should be listed as a less toxic Schedule 3 substance, a category that includes Vicodin, Tylenol with codeine and anabolic steroids.
Medical marijuana advocates and two former governors – Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Christine Gregoire of Washington – had petitioned the DEA to reclassify marijuana to Schedule 2 as a means of promoting further research into its medical benefits. Twenty-five states and Washington, D.C., have approved marijuana’s use as medicine.
While rejecting those petitions, Rosenberg issued a separate policy statement Thursday that could measurably expand the amount of marijuana being cultivated for medical research. He said the government will now accept applications “to increase the number of registered marijuana growers who will be supplying U.S. researchers” studying medical effects of cannabis.
Grant said that decision is sure to prompt discussion about whether public agencies or private institutions in the state should seek to produce marijuana for such studies. “We haven’t had a chance to have those conversations,” Grant said.
Rick Doblin, director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a Santa Cruz nonprofit group advocating alternative medical research, said the policy change could have a major impact in expanding marijuana research.
MAPS pressed unsuccessfully for permission to cultivate marijuana to supply clinical trials trying to determine whether veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress could benefit from cannabis use. After years of delay, those studies – involving 76 subjects and researchers in Arizona, at Johns Hopkins University and universities in Colorado and Pennsylvania – are to begin this fall with marijuana produced by the University of Mississippi.
Doblin said licensing additional “nongovernment cannabis producers” would enable expanded research and larger clinical trials – work he predicts will lead to marijuana’s eventual rescheduling and perhaps insurance coverage for medicinal users.
The DEA announcement noted that the government isn’t planning to register “an unlimited number of manufacturers” of marijuana for research. Doblin said he believes licenses will remain tightly restricted, meaning that existing marijuana producers growing legally in California and other states won’t be able to suddenly cash in on new markets for pot research.
“As part of the DEA announcement, they said they wouldn’t look very favorably on licenses that are already breaking federal law,” Doblin said.
The DEA’s split verdicts on marijuana riled some California advocates, including Steve DeAngelo, director of Oakland’s Harborside Health Center dispensary, the state’s largest medical marijuana provider. He called the agency’s refusal to reschedule cannabis “absurd and heartless.”
But Wayne Johnson, a consultant for the campaign opposing Proposition 64, said the DEA had validated the opposition’s skepticism about legalizing marijuana. The California initiative would allow adults ages 21 and up to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and would impose a 15 percent excise tax on recreational pot sales.
“This decision is a stark contrast to the push by the big players in the marijuana industry who wrote Prop. 64 and are now spending millions of dollars rushing this flawed measure to the ballot in order to capture the California market,” Johnson said.
For his part, Proposition 64 spokesman Jason Kinney said the DEA’s decision may give more incentive for voters to back the measure.
“We do agree with federal regulators that more independent scientific and clinical research is desperately needed, which is why Proposition 64 invests millions of new dollars into California-based research on marijuana’s medical and nonmedical benefits, as well as enforceable traffic safety standards,” Kinney said.
If passed, the initiative would direct $2 million annually from state marijuana tax revenue to the California Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research for studies on efficacy and safety of medical marijuana.