Feds Open Door To More Pot Research While Keeping It Classified As One Of 'Most Dangerous' Drugs

The decision is a huge disappointment to marijuana legalization advocates.
Anya Semenoff via Getty Images

The Drug Enforcement Administration announced Thursday that it is ending the federal government’s decades-long monopoly on cultivation of marijuana for research purposes, a move that is expected to usher in more scientific analysis of the plant’s medical benefits. But the agency also declined to reclassify the drug, leaving marijuana on the government’s list of “most dangerous” narcotics, along with heroin and LSD.

The move to allow more sites to legally grow marijuana represents a further easing of the nation’s prohibitionist laws surrounding the drug, and will likely increase the amount of cannabis available for scientists. Still, a refusal to reschedule marijuana, or de-schedule it entirely, falls short of what advocates for more progressive U.S. drug laws were seeking.

For almost five decades, the University of Mississippi, overseen by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, has housed the only federally legal cannabis garden in the United States. Those crops are the sole source of marijuana used in Food and Drug Administration-sanctioned research into the plant’s medical potential. Critics say this restriction on cultivation has, at times, led to significant delays in obtaining cannabis for research. It remains unclear how many more facilities will now be allowed to legally grow marijuana for research.

“The curtailment of the NIDA monopoly would almost certainly increase the supply of the drug to the research community and make researchers less dependent on Ole Miss for their product,” John Hudak, senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institute, told The Huffington Post. “This may help combat some researchers’ claims that they cannot get sufficient product from the monopoly. That said, the NIDA monopoly is only one step in the research process and that process is riddled with barriers.”

The U.S. has five categories, or schedules, classifying drugs or chemicals that can be used to make them. Schedule I is reserved for drugs the DEA considers to be the “most dangerous” and without “current accepted medical use.” Marijuana has been classified as Schedule I for decades, along with heroin and LSD. Rescheduling marijuana would not make it legal, but a lower schedule could potentially ease restrictions on research into the drug and make banks less wary of offering financial services to state-legal marijuana businesses. It could also allow those businesses to make some traditional tax deductions.

Had the government reclassified cannabis as schedule II or II, it would have been beneficial to medical research communities, Hudak said.

“Scheduling deals largely with how substances are handled in controlled scientific environments or as pharmaceuticals,” he said, adding that if the plant were placed in schedule III or below, marijuana businesses could finally enjoy federal business tax benefits.

The DEA said it was “supportive of efforts to advance scientific research on marijuana,” but that it maintained its opposition to medical marijuana.

“Marijuana has no accepted medical use in the United States, and lacks an acceptable level of safety for use even under medical supervision,” it said.

The government’s decision to help facilitate more research into marijuana’s medical promise while also maintaining the status quo on its classification was met with mixed feelings.

“I welcome the decision to lessen barriers to medical marijuana research,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), a vocal proponent for ending the federal government’s prohibition of marijuana. “More than half the states ― and counting ― have legalized some form of medical marijuana. It’s outrageous that federal policy has blocked science for so long.”

But the congressman blasted the DEA for not reclassifying the plant.

“Keeping marijuana at Schedule I continues an outdated, failed approach ― leaving patients and marijuana businesses trapped between state and federal laws,” Blumenauer said. “It’s not enough to remove some barriers to medical research. Marijuana shouldn’t be listed as Schedule I; it shouldn’t be listed at all.”

The DEA has rejected a reclassification of marijuana three times before, following public petitions requesting that the agency reschedule it. Each time, federal regulators determined that marijuana should remain a Schedule I substance, arguing that there wasn’t enough research about marijuana’s efficacy in treating various ailments.

Critics have long accused the federal government of obstructing the science around the plant in general, as well as funding marijuana research that largely focuses on the drug’s potential negative effects. But a growing body of research has shown the medical potential of cannabis in the fight against multiple ailments.

That potential has moved voters in more than half of the states to change their marijuana laws. Currently, 25 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical purposes. Four states, along with D.C., have legalized recreational marijuana for adults. Many others have legalized more limited use of purified extracts from the plant or decriminalized use and possession. And several more states are expected to decide on legalization in some form this year.

But the plant remains banned under federal law. The states that have legalized the drug in some form or another have only been able to do so because of federal guidance urging prosecutors to refrain from targeting state-legal marijuana operations.

Kevin Sabet, president of anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, cheered the DEA’s decision, saying it “means that medications based on marijuana will have to go through the same rigorous testing process as all of our other medications.”

Tom Angell, chairman of drug policy reform group Marijuana Majority, called the move “a positive step” for patients and one “that should lead to greatly expanded research on the medical benefits of marijuana.” But he too expressed disappointment with the government’s decision to retain the status quo on the drug’s classification.

“It’s really sad that DEA has chosen to continue decades of ignoring the voices of patients who benefit from medical marijuana,” Angell said. “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.”

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