Chem Tales: Failure to Reschedule

The Drug Enforcement Administration’s decision last week not to reschedule marijuana highlights the absurdities of its pre-election limbo.

Marijuana will remain a Schedule I drug, meaning that the federal government doesn’t recognize any of its medical uses and considers it to have high potential for abuse. “This decision isn’t based on danger,” DEA chief Chuck Rosenberg told NPR. “This decision is based on whether marijuana, as determined by the FDA, is a safe and effective medicine … and it’s not.”

In one sense, Rosenberg is correct. Cannabis, the plant itself, has not gone through the clinical trials necessary to be approved as a pharmaceutical. But chemicals found in marijuana, even Rosenberg has acknowledged, have medical potential.

Marinol (synthetic THC) is an FDA-approved drug for AIDS-related weight loss and cancer-related nausea and vomiting. Epidiolex, an experimental drug from UK firm GW Pharmaceuticals that is comprised of cannabidiol (CBD), has been shown in a late-stage clinical trial to reduce seizures in children with a rare form of epilepsy. If it was easier for researchers to study marijuana in this country, this list would probably be longer.

Hillary Clinton, among other prominent politicians, has called for marijuana to be reclassified as a Schedule II drug, which would make it easier to study without completely legalizing it. Rescheduling marijuana could complicate life for an industry that would rather see it descheduled and regulated like alcohol. Still, many insiders were looking to the DEA for vindication of marijuana’s benefits. They didn’t get it.

Instead, the DEA maintains that the plant has no medical value. Its supporting evidence is that after decades of making marijuana research almost impossible to pursue in this country, there is a lack of research.

The awkwardness of this position is compounded by the 25 states that have already legalized medical marijuana. The states don’t know more about the plant’s medical benefits than the federal government does, but legislators and voters have been willing to give patients the benefit of the doubt.

It’s easy to think of medical marijuana as a joke or a stalking horse for full legalization, and, to some extent, it’s both. But the full reality is more nuanced: The plant’s medical and recreational uses aren’t easily distinguished from one another.

Marijuana users often say the drug helps with insomnia, anxiety, shyness, and other “soft” conditions that can also be treated with pharmaceuticals. More research needs to be done before we know which conditions marijuana can really treat, but a study published in the journal Health Affairs did find that doctors write fewer prescriptions for anxiety, pain, sleep, and depression drugs in states where medical marijuana is legal. In other words, many people prefer marijuana to pharmaceuticals for treating certain conditions, and part of the reason they prefer it is that it gets them high. If a combat veteran finds that a few joints help him get through the day, is that a legitimate medical use?

For now, the official answer depends on where you’re reading this, but there are signs that the medical/recreational distinction is unsustainable.

Last month, Washington state closed down its medical marijuana dispensaries, pushing patients into a more heavily regulated recreational market. (This should also boost marijuana tax revenues.) The move acknowledges that whether someone is smoking weed for fun or health is often a meaningless distinction.

The DEA doesn’t make that distinction either. But unlike Washington, it’s unwilling to grapple with the realities of legalization. The agency did say it would expand the number of facilities that can legally grow marijuana, making it easier to study. It’s possible that dispensaries in the future will continue to sell products that some customers consider medicine, and there will be separate marijuana-based pharmaceuticals for severely ill patients.

For an agency that exists to combat illegal drugs, the DEA’s decision might count as a bold one, especially in the middle of an election. “We’re not Ronald Reagan’s narcs,” it seems to be saying.

Writing in the Washington Post this year, Stanford professor Keith Humphreys suggested that a new classification could be created for marijuana: Schedule I-Research for “less dangerous drugs with high medical research potential.” This is close to what the agency did, though the DEA’s commitment to marijuana research is unproven.

Still, for anyone paying attention, the DEA remains hopelessly out of touch. This is frustrating to people who think they might benefit from medical marijuana but can’t access it, and business people who’ve bet their future on the industry.

If the DEA was so inclined, it could start closing state-legal dispensaries tomorrow. Under President Barack Obama, it decided not to make that a priority. Perhaps it has realized the industry is already too big to shut down. It’s understandable that the agency isn’t eager to declare the end of the war on pot, but if it’s going to be a relevant voice in marijuana policy, the DEA needs to consider public opinion and what facts do already exist.

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