The United States Drug Enforcement Administration today rejected a pair of administrative rescheduling petitions challenging the federal classification of cannabis as a Schedule I controlled substance with no accepted medical utility.
The agency’s decision continues to classify marijuana in the same category as heroin under federal anti-drug laws, maintaining that the plant possesses a “high potential for abuse” and that it lacks “accepted safety for use … under medical supervision.”
To those familiar with the DEA’s history, the agency’s decision was hardly surprising. Over the past three decades, the agency has rejected four previous rescheduling petitions, and in 1990 the DEA even went so far as to set aside a determination of its own administrative law judge in order to maintain cannabis Schedule I criminal status.
According to DEA acting administrator chief Chuck Rosenberg, the DEA’s determination was based on their opinion that cannabis is not yet established as a “safe and effective” medicine. But even a cursory review of the available evidence shows that this claim is based largely upon politics, not science.
There exist over 25,000 peer-reviewed papers specific to cannabis (by contrast, a PubMed database search using the key word ‘adderall’ yields fewer than 200 total papers), and unlike conventional therapeutics, humans have been using cannabis for therapeutic purposes for thousands of years. Twenty-six states now authorize the plant’s medicinal use by statute, and one in eight Americans self-identify as current consumers. A recent review of FDA-approved clinical studies evaluating the safety and efficacy of herbal cannabis concluded: “Based on evidence currently available the Schedule I classification is not tenable; it is not accurate that cannabis has no medical value, or that Information on safety is lacking.”
There is nothing scientific about willful ignorance.
There is one bright spot in today’s actions. The agency also announced in a separate decision that it is adopting policy changes designed to expand the production of research-grade cannabis for FDA-approved clinical studies.
Presently, any clinical trial involving cannabis must access source material cultivated at the University of Mississippi – an arbitrary prohibition that is not in place for other controlled substances. Today, the agency announced for the first time that it will consider applications from multiple parties, including private entities, to produce marijuana for FDA-approved research protocols as well as for “commercial product development.” Ironically, this change was initially recommended by the DEA’s own administrative law judge in 2007, but her decision was ultimately rejected by the agency in 2011.
While this announcement is a significant step toward better facilitating and expanding clinical investigations into cannabis’ therapeutic efficacy, ample scientific evidence already exists to remove cannabis from its schedule I classification and to acknowledge its relative safety compared to other scheduled substances, like opioids, and unscheduled substances, such as alcohol. Ultimately, the federal government ought to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act in a manner similar to alcohol and tobacco, thus providing states the power to establish their own marijuana regulatory policies free from federal intrusion.
Since the DEA is unwilling to take such action, then it is incumbent that members of Congress act swiftly to amend cannabis’ criminal status in a way that comports with both public and scientific opinion. Failure to do so continues the federal government’s ‘Flat Earth’ position. It willfully ignores the well-established therapeutic properties associated with the plant and it ignores the laws in a majority of the county recognizing marijuana’s therapeutic efficacy and rapidly changing legal status.
Armentano is the deputy director of NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) and an adviser for Freedom Leaf. He is the co-author of the book "Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?" (Cheslea Green, 2013) and author of the book "The Citizen's Guide to State-By-State Marijuana Laws" (Whitman Press, 2015).
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