Last week, the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) decided to maintain marijuana’s status as a Schedule 1 Drug under the Controlled Substance Act. By definition, substances on Schedule 1 have been determined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as having “no medical use whatsoever” and are also deemed to have a “high potential for abuse.” At the same time, the DEA’s decision came with a relaxation of some of the rules regarding medical cannabis research.
Confused? You’re not the only one. The DEA’s schizophrenic stance regarding marijuana has a lot of patients and advocates scratching their heads─ and even more throwing their hands up in disgust at the hypocrisy which is clearly at the root of the DEA’s policy towards medical marijuana.
What Does the DEA Decision Mean?
According to the report that went with last Thursday’s ruling, the DEA claims that “there is no evidence that there is a consensus among qualified experts that marijuana is safe and effective for use in treating a specific, recognized disorder.”
No consensus amongst qualified experts? Really? A quick search on PubMed will bring up close to 500 studies on marijuana’s effects on cancer alone. Maybe by “qualified experts” the DEA is referring to that which adheres to American research standards only. This would make sense if another U.S. agency, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, hadn’t recently begun approving cannabis-based pharmaceutical drugs put forth by companies coming from abroad, such as UK-based GW Pharma. Their U.S.-patented drug for epilepsy is currently winding its way through the FDA-approval process, with several other cannabis-based drugs following closely behind.
To add to the irony, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services itself already owns a patent on cannabinoids, which was approved in 2003. According to the filing, cannabinoids are classified as an “antioxidant and neuroprotectant” and goes on to state that “Cannabinoids have been found to have antioxidant properties, unrelated to NMDA receptor antagonism. This new found property makes cannabinoids useful in the treatment and prophylaxis of wide variety of oxidation associated diseases, such as ischemic, age-related, inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. The cannabinoids are found to have particular application as neuroprotectants, for example in limiting neurological damage following ischemic insults, such as stroke and trauma, or in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, HIV and dementia.”
This explanation is actually in line with the opinions of some of the DEA’s chief members, including former DEA chief administrative law judge Francis Young. Close to 30 years ago, Young stated:
“In strict medical terms marijuana is far safer than many foods we commonly consume. For example, eating 10 raw potatoes can result in a toxic response. By comparison, it is physically impossible to eat enough marijuana to induce death. Marijuana in its natural form is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man. By any measure of rational analysis marijuana can be safely used within the supervised routine of medical care.”
What “Relaxing the Rules” on Scientific Study Really Means
But no matter. The DEA has put its foot down…kind of.
At the same time the DEA announced that “the known risks of marijuana use have not been shown to be outweighed by specific benefits in well-controlled clinical trials that scientifically evaluate safety and efficacy,” it also decided to loosen regulation that has hindered that “qualified research” from happening thus far. It claims that it will open up opportunities to expand the number of growers of research-grade marijuana so that a more diverse level of DEA-approved cannabis research can happen.
And while this may seem like a step in the right direction, many experts conclude that, as long as marijuana remains on Schedule 1, the DEA’s actions probably won’t do much, and may even hurt researchers’ chances for establishing “proof” of cannabis’ curative effects. This is because as long as marijuana remains on Schedule 1, opening up the gates for a more diverse research landscape may be next to impossible. Elaborate security measures such as heavy-duty safes and security systems that rival the latest James Bond film are mandatory for Schedule 1 drug research facilities, and this presents a major barrier for interested institutions. Another barrier is getting the research facility or university on board, as many previous attempts have been thwarted by the prospect of fallout over “bad press”, making most universities leery to grant permission for it to be conducted on their grounds.
And then there is NIDA (the National Institute on Drug Abuse), the largest federal funder of marijuana research and also the sole supplier of marijuana for federally-sanctioned research purposes. NIDA’s primary mandate, according to Dr. Donald Abrams at the University of San Francisco, is to first and foremost, study Schedule 1 substances for “potential abuse and harm, not for their medical benefits.“
In a response written for CNN last Friday, Dr. Sanjay Gupta makes a poignant analogy that pretty much sums up the situation:
“Imagine a product that is in high demand but kept behind a locked door. In response to the demand for the product, someone makes a baffling decision to make more of it but still never unlocks the door. Marijuana is that product, and its Schedule I designation is that locked door.”
How Will the DEA Decision Affect Patients?
Besides the many unanswered questions regarding how the DEA decision will affect the quality and extent of medical marijuana research under Schedule 1, others speculate how the decision will affect the momentum of the legalization movement within individual states. Will the DEA use the announcement to continue to interfere with states that have legalized marijuana access for both patients and recreational users at the state level?
“The DEA’s decision ignores the public will and patients’ experience with the medical benefits of marijuana,” Tom Angell, chairman of the organization Marijuana Majority, told USA Today last Thursday. “Congress should bar DEA and other federal agencies from interfering with the implementation of state marijuana laws.”
What is crystal clear is that the DEA’s decision prolongs the suffering of hundreds of thousands in this country who could be benefiting from the healing effects of medical marijuana right now.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel, however. Currently there are eight states, including California, that have marijuana legalization legislation pending for their November ballots. And for the first time ever, there is comprehensive medical marijuana legislation in both the U.S. Senate and House. The CARERS Act would provide sweeping reform that would effectively abolish a wide swath of policies against marijuana that currently exist . While the DEA announcement may be an expected set-back, it does not define the movement for legalization and it is definitely not curbing the wave of consumer demand for legal options and education when it comes to the healing power of cannabis.