On Thursday the government yet again refused to allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes, turning down requests to remove the drug from its “Schedule 1” classification. But for once it might’ve left the door open for cannabis to get its foot in the door.
The problem with marijuana has always been something of a catch-22: The DEA isn’t seeing enough evidence that cannabis holds any medical value. So the agency keeps the drug at Schedule 1, along with heroin, LSD, and other drugs that seem to have a high risk of abuse and no medical value. Supporters were hoping that this time around the DEA might lower marijuana to Schedule 2, where it would sit with cocaine, meth, and other drugs that have a high potential for abuse but some acknowledged medical value.
But in a letter released Thursday, DEA chief Chuck Rosenberg said that there’s not enough research to suggest that it does have any medical value.
“This decision isn’t based on danger. This decision is based on whether marijuana, as determined by the FDA, is a safe and effective medicine,” he wrote. “And it’s not.”
Marijuana’s status as a Schedule I substance makes it difficult to legally research the plant. This problem persists even in states where marijuana is legal because many research institutions (e.g., federally funded universities) risk violating federal law by possessing marijuana, even for research purposes. The DEA allows researchers to apply for permits to study the plant, but the bureaucratic difficulty involved has basically rendered this avenue moot. All of this results in a huge deficit in reliable research on marijuana, despite growing legalization, widespread use across the country and massive anecdotal evidence as to its efficacy as medication.
Ironically, the lack of reliable data on cannabis is the driving force behind the most recent failed attempt to reschedule…The rescheduling of marijuana seems to be stuck in an infinite loop. Rescheduling requires scientific data showing cannabis has positive medical applications that outweigh its potential harm. Those studies are not happening because cannabis is a Schedule I substance that is too dangerous to research. But to get marijuana out of Schedule I, the DEA needs reliable research. . . .
It seemed, for a while, like there may be more wiggle room here, with more and more states giving the green light for medical and recreational marijuana use. But clearly there’s still not enough adequate research that the DEA or the FDA can point to that says marijuana has medicinal value, and “the scientific evidence is not widely available.” And so ends another chapter in the saga to get marijuana’s federal scheduling more in line with the public’s.
Or that’s how it seemed. But the DEA also announced it would be expanding the number of places allowed to grow marijuana for studies of its medical value—chronic pain relief, epilepsy, and more—thus increasing the amount of marijuana available for “legitimate research.” Currently only the University of Mississippi (which holds an exclusive contract with the National Institute on Drug Abuse) is licensed to grow marijuana for research purposes, making the “legitimate” research pool remarkably low.
“As long as folks abide by the rules, and we’re going to regulate that, we want to expand the availability, the variety, the type of marijuana available to legitimate researchers,” Rosenberg said. “If our understanding of the science changes, that could very well drive a new decision.”
That’s something the community of marijuana supporters have been saying for years.