DEA Keeps Head In The Sand; Refuses To Reschedule Marijuana

Medical marijuana is displayed in Los Angeles, California, U.S. August 6, 2007.  REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni/File Photo
Medical marijuana is displayed in Los Angeles, California, U.S. August 6, 2007. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni/File Photo

Today, the DEA announced that it was not rescheduling marijuana. Earlier this year it was reported that the DEA was considering rescheduling marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule II, a move that would have shown the federal government believes marijuana has an "accepted medical use." This would have been a very symbolic move - something that marijuana law reform supporters have pursued for many years. Unfortunately the scandal-ridden DEA is keeping its head in the sand for now.

However, the DEA also announced that it was ending its monopoly on marijuana research, which is definitely a victory for the marijuana law reform movement. For decades, the DEA has made it impossible for scientists to put marijuana through clinical trials to demonstrate it meets FDA standards for medical safety and efficacy.

The only marijuana that researchers have been able to obtain over the years has been a low-quality supply from the one facility that the DEA has given a license to produce it - and that facility is operated by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). This facility has held a monopoly on the supply of marijuana available to scientists, including researchers seeking to conduct FDA-approved studies of the plant's medical properties - which often squarely conflict with NIDA's mission to study the harms of drug consumption.

Ending the DEA-enforced NIDA monopoly is a very welcome move that will enable more research, but that's only one part of the problem. Descheduling marijuana should be a priority for activists who are concerned about all the problems marijuana prohibition creates. These problems are not limited to its lack of availability for medical use or scientific research.

The Drug Policy Alliance believes that marijuana should be removed from the Controlled Substances Act and descheduled entirely, not simply rescheduled. States should be allowed to set their own policies. As DPA's Bill Piper has explained:

"Rescheduling also doesn't change federal criminal penalties. It would still be illegal under federal law to possess, manufacture or distribute marijuana. The DEA could still raid medical marijuana dispensaries. The Justice Department could still prosecute patients and caregivers and take their property through asset forfeiture."

Marijuana prohibition is the driving force of the war on drugs, and is responsible for hundreds of thousands of people getting arrested every year, who are predominantly black and Latino, even though white people use and sell marijuana at similar rates. In 2014, there were 700,993 marijuana arrests in the U.S. and the overwhelming majority (88 percent) of these arrests were for simple possession, not sale or manufacture. That's approximately one marijuana arrest every 42 seconds. Many of those who are arrested are saddled with a criminal conviction that can make it difficult or impossible to vote, obtain educational loans, get a job, secure housing, or even adopt a child.

Additionally, there is a persuasive fiscal argument - billions of dollars could be generated nationwide with savings from re-directing and more effectively using law enforcement resources and collecting tax revenue through legally regulated marijuana. But I'm fighting to end marijuana prohibition for the thousands of people who shouldn't have their lives turned upside down as the result of a low-level marijuana arrest.

Please join me in urging our members of Congress to deschedule marijuana.

Derek Rosenfeld is the manager of social media and media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance.