So, last Thursday, the Drug Enforcement Agency refused to reschedule cannabis. It has been classified since 1970 as a Schedule I chemical, defined by the DEA as “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse” alongside heroin, Quaaludes, GHB, bath salts and most hallucinogens.
This is, on one hand, a disappointment because it had seemed, based on the path of history and public support, that this long-awaited decision from Washington might come down on the side of reason and the ever-growing weight of science.
But, this is the DEA, the DEA of Aslinger and the origin of cannabis prohibition and “Reefer Madness,” the DEA of Colombian sex scandals, asset forfeiture, Bitcoin extortion and illegal wiretapping; looking to them for support might be akin to a group of chickens looking to a fox for support or sheep looking to wolves for support (I could continue ad infinitum with these nature metaphors). An article in The Atlantic from April 2015 demonstrates what the DEA has been up to over the past few years. It’s not pretty.
Here is the current state of cannabis as medicine in these United States. Twenty-five (yes, half) states and the District of Columbia operate legal medical marijuana programs. An additional 16 states run CBD-only programs aimed primarily at providing medicine for seizure disorders. That’s 41 states total; by comparison, Sonic drive-in burger restaurants are located in 38 states.
This current decision is the end result of three separate petitions filed with the aim of removing cannabis from the list of this country’s most strictly-monitored chemicals, one filed in 2009 by Bryan Krumm of New Mexico, a psychiatric nurse practitioner who has been using it to treat PTSD, and two filed in 2011 by the former governors of Washington state and Rhode Island, Chris Gregoire and Lincoln Chaffe (both petitions have been supported by the current governors, Jay Inslee in Washington and Gina Raimondo in Rhode Island). Three previous petitions have been filed in attempts to reschedule cannabis, going back to the 1972 filing by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML); each of these was also denied, including a 1988 denial that came in spite of the proclamation by their own Chief Administrative Law Judge Francis L. Young that natural cannabis is “one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man. (T)he provisions of the (Controlled Substances) Act permit and require the transfer of marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule II.”
There is also the exception made in 1985-86 by the DEA for the rescheduling from I to II of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, after it was isolated and converted to a pill form known as Marinol. That might be the direction we are headed. The DEA did not come to the decision to not reschedule cannabis solely by its own wits; the Food and Drug Administration was the primary background decision maker; it is the FDA that is responsible for making government policy when it comes to drugs. The reason Marinol is Schedule II (drugs with high potential for abuse, currently accepted medical use in the United States, the abuse of which may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence, like most opiates and amphetamines, like Adderall and Ritalin) is because, unlike raw cannabis or whole-plant extracts, it is one single, isolated compound. That chemistry-based isolation is the arena of the FDA and the pharmaceutical companies with whom it works closely.
The single “concession” made by the DEA in announcing its decision last week was the proclamation that it would expand the list of approved manufacturers (cannabis growers) beyond the current monopoly at the University of Mississippi in order to provide more and more appropriate strains of cannabis for study by sanctioned researchers.
I’m personally torn over whether this latest decision by the DEA is a good thing or a bad thing. On the plus side, the status quo since California created the first state-run medical marijuana program in 1996 has seen nearly unbelievable growth and expansion through Democrat and Republican administrations, with the current levels of oversight. The current Democrat presidential platform even calls for a “reasoned pathway to future legalization,” and Hillary Clinton said last week that she would reschedule if she is elected in November. On the negative side, the threat of DEA raids and the asset forfeitures that spur them still exist, patients in several states have no access to one of the only medicines that effectively helps their conditions and legitimate businesses are denied access to banking and tax exemptions as a result of Nixon’s willful decision in 1970 to ignore science. And here we sit, on the front lines of history, waiting for what might come next.
Christopher Gallagher lives with his wife and their four dogs and two horses. Life is pretty darn good. Contact him at [email protected]