In a move that should be little surprise to anyone who follows developments in marijuana law, the DEA announced in August that it would not, in fact, make it easier to legalize the drug.
That doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Just a day before the DEA decision, the Obama administration announced it would lift a major barrier to research into marijuana’s medical benefits. Though this move applies only to scientists who undergo a rigorous approval process, it could mark an early step toward federal legalization.
The DEA’s decision, on the other hand, leaves cannabis on schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), a list of drugs that are banned by the federal government – including heroin, LSD, and synthetic cannabis. These substances are considered too dangerous, too addictive, and too medically useless to be allowed for any purpose.
Marijuana fully legal in four states and D.C.
Even so, four states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for any use under their own laws, while another 21 states now allow medicinal cannabis. But the Department of Justice and its law enforcement agencies, including the DEA, could eventually decide to enforce federal law and completely outlaw the drug again.
The DEA was responding to two petitions, one from a group of lawmakers, that asked the agency to review marijuana’s listing under the CSA. It was at least the third time in recent decades that the DEA performed such a review, and it had the same outcome.
DEA claims decision based on ‘scientific and medical evaluation’
DEA officials said their decision was based on a “scientific and medical evaluation” by the FDA – an evaluation that determined marijuana has no legitimate medical applications. This position, however, is contradicted by massive amounts of hard scientific evidence.
Officials said they would prefer to subject the drug to standard FDA protocols, which require long multi-phase drug trials. These studies are unlikely to result in the full legalization of medicinal pot at the federal level, since the FDA almost never approves medicines that aren’t produced by regulated pharmaceutical companies.
“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 a statement issued Aug. 11.
The problem with that approach is that the very fact that marijuana is listed in schedule 1 makes it nearly impossible for scientists to study how safe and medically useful it is. Historically, federal agencies would only clear studies into the drug’s supposed dangers.
Obama lift restrictions on marijuana research
But the Obama administration announced May 10 that it would expand its supply of legal research marijuana, opening the door to more comprehensive research. Currently scientists conducting studies funded or regulated by the federal government (which includes a large majority of all studies) must obtain the drug from a small farm at the University of Mississippi.
Obama’s decision means scientists will have several more sources of pot, as well as access to a more potent supply for studies that require high concentrations of THC. The new federal farms will grow more strains, a critical improvement for research into medical marijuana.
Researchers and legalization advocates hailed the administration’s announcement but said they were disappointed by the contradictory decision at the DEA.
“Science has been shackled by politics for decades,” said Dr. Sue Sisley, a psychiatrist and former researcher who left the University of Arizona after administrators shut down a major cannabis study. Controlled trials couldn’t be done without begging” anti-drug agencies.
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