The Drug Enforcement Administration announced on Thursday morning that it won’t change the federal legal status of marijuana.
Marijuana is classified federally as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), meaning that it has no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. It’s the same classification as heroin.
While the DEA didn’t reschedule marijuana, it did announce a plan to increase the supply of marijuana available for medical research. More research material could mean that current marijuana-based drugs under development could be approved faster. And if the FDA approves a marijuana-based drug, then the DEA will be forced to re-evaluate the plant’s classification.
The DEA’s announcement came in response to two widely-circulated petitions that requested the reclassification of marijuana to Schedule II, or to be removed from the CSA list altogether.
Schedule II drugs are defined as those with a high potential for abuse, but also with currently accepted medical purposes. Schedule II drugs can be obtained through prescription.
Currently, marijuana’s legality is determined on a state-by-state basis. In some states, like Colorado, marijuana is able to be purchased and consumed recreationally, while in others, it’s available medically or completely illegal.
In a letter addressed to the petitioners, DEA acting administrator Chuck Rosenberg said that there wasn’t enough evidence to reclassify marijuana.
“Using established scientific standards that are consistent with that same FDA drug approval process and based on the FDA’s scientific and medical evaluation… marijuana will remain a Schedule I substance,” Rosenberg wrote.
The DEA took a shot at the marijuana industry in Colorado last week, likening grow houses in residential neighbourhoods to the “meth houses” of the 1990s.
The DEA’s announcement left many within the marijuana community upset.
“It’s really sad that DEA has chosen to continue decades of ignoring the voices of patients who benefit from medical marijuana,” Tom Angell, the chairman of Marijuana Majority, an advocacy group wrote to Business Insider in an email. “President Obama always said he would let science — and not ideology — dictate policy, but in this case his administration is upholding a failed drug war approach instead of looking at real, existing evidence that marijuana has medical value.”
“It’s extremely disappointing and shows how out of touch federal officials are with reality,” Chris Walsh, the editorial director of Marijuana Business Daily told Business Insider in an email. Walsh added that more than a million patients use medical marijuana to “ease their pain” from cancer, HIV/AIDS, glaucoma, PTSD and “dozens of other ailments.”
“Yet marijuana remains listed alongside heroin and LSD as one of the most dangerous drugs in the country. It just doesn’t make sense,” Walsh said.
“Allowing the DEA to set our national policy on cannabis flies in the face of the very rational, science-based approach that the Obama administration has been promising for eight years, and yet again has failed to deliver,” David Bienenstock, of High Times, told Business Insider in an email.
A small ‘positive step’
Despite the criticism, the DEA’s decision doesn’t flat-out reject the notion that marijuana and marijuana-based compounds can be effective medicines.
There are currently a number of companies and institutions working on getting marijuana-based drugs approved by the FDA. If the FDA approves any Schedule I drug, then the DEA must reschedule the drug within 90 days.
The language in Rosenberg’s letter (the DEA administrator) specifically leaves this path open:
“The DEA and FDA continue to believe that scientifically valid and well-controlled clinical trials conducted under investigational new drug applications are the proper way to research all potential new medicines, including marijuana … We believe that the drug approval process is the proper way to assess whether a product derived from marijuana or its constituent parts is safe and effective for medical use.”
The DEA, while not rescheduling the drug, is essentially turning the issue over to the FDA. If a company can get a marijuana-based drug approved by the FDA, it’s likely that the DEA will change marijuana’s classification.
Some observers, however, say that marijuana’s status as a Schedule 1 drug stifles research. Right now, the only supply of marijuana available for research comes from one lab at the University of Mississippi under a contract with the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA).
With only one lab providing marijuana, researchers, and even The Brookings Institution, have complained that it’s difficult to obtain quality research samples.
“A big part of the government’s reasoning is that marijuana ‘has no currently accepted medical use,’ which is ridiculous because the government has essentially banned the research needed to prove that cannabis does in fact have medical benefits,” Walsh, of Marijuana Business Daily, said.
In the announcement on Thursday, the DEA said that in order to “facilitate research” about marijuana and it’s chemical constituents, they’re increasing the number of entities registered under the CSA to grow marijuana to supply researchers across the country, busting the monopoly the University of Mississippi has on growing marijuana for research.
In other words, the DEA wants to sharply increase the supply of marijuana available for medical research.
Opening up more sites for growing marijuana for medical research could result in getting a marijuana-based drug approved by the FDA sooner, which would force the DEA to reclassify, or even move marijuana off the CSA altogether. As well, it will provide researchers with more reliable, and diverse, samples.
“We appreciate the positive step — however small — of opening up a few additional avenues for medical marijuana research,” Aaron Smith, the executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association said in a statement. “But patients deserve more, and Congress should help them by removing marijuana from the Controlled Substance Act, allowing state programs and medical research to move forward without interference.”
Bienenstock, of High Times, said that while he “applauds” the decision to end the NIDA’s monopoly on growing and supplying marijuana for research purposes, “it’s a sickening shame that so many patients seeking healing and relief through herbal cannabis will have to remain in the shadows of prohibition while we wait for the federal government to catch up to both science and the will of the people.”
Others within the marijuana space are more sceptical that rescheduling marijuana is a positive step in the first place, as that would open the door for major pharmaceutical companies to dive into the industry.
“Rescheduling marijuana is a double edged sword,” Seibo Shen, the CEO of VapeXhale, a vaporizer and health company, told Business Insider in an email. “While moving it to Schedule II would have been one step forward, it would put the industry completely in the hands of big pharma companies.”