The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Thursday denied petitions to demote pot from the highest tier of dangerous substances, saying there is no research to support pot's legitimate medical uses.
The decision was rooted in recommendations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services, which determined marijuana should remain a Schedule I substance with the highest legal restrictions under the Controlled Substances Act, according to the DEA.
It's classified among drugs like heroin, LSD and ecstasy. Drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine, oxycodone, Adderall and Vicodin are classified under Schedule II.
In a letter to the petitioners, DEA Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg acknowledged that cannabidiol research on some medical problems such as child epilepsy has "shown promise," and said its use "would be a wonderful and welcome development." But only if the FDA deems it safe and effective for treatment, and that hasn't happened, he said.
"(Marijuana) does not have a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, there is lack of accepted safety for its use under medical supervision, and it has a high potential for abuse," Rosenberg said. "If the scientific understanding about marijuana changes - and it could change - then the decision could change. But we will remain tethered to science, as we must, and as the statute demands."
The decision butts against Colorado and other states that have legalized the drug.
Colorado allows residents to grow up to six plants each for medical reasons and six for recreational purposes. Washington, Oregon and Alaska allow the same.
In 26 states, medical marijuana is legal. Thirteen more states are looking to legalize medical or recreational marijuana with a November vote.
The conflicting views roiled cannabis advocates.
"DEA's decision flies in the face of objective science and overwhelming public opinion," said Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association. "The reality is that half of U.S. states have already passed effective laws allowing patients legal access to medical cannabis, and it is changing lives."
To continue to deny marijuana's health benefits "forces critically ill people to suffer needlessly, leaves life-changing treatments undeveloped, and keeps patients and providers in limbo between state and federal laws," Smith said.
Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and an adviser for Freedom Leaf, called the decision "willful ignorance."
In a letter published to The Hill, he argued that 25,000 peer-reviewed papers are specific to cannabis; one in eight Americans self-identify as current consumers; and a recent review of FDA-approved clinical studies evaluating the safety and efficacy of herbal cannabis concluded that "it is not accurate that cannabis has no medical value, or that information on safety is lacking."
"Ample scientific evidence" backing marijuana's "relative safety compared to other scheduled substances" exists, Armentano said. He claimed the DEA's decision was "based largely upon politics, not science."
The criteria for inclusion as a Schedule I drug is not relative to danger, Rosenberg said, though he said the category includes "substances that are exceptionally dangerous and some that are less dangerous."
Removing a drug from the list of controlled substances is based on medical and scientific evidence showing the drug is effective in treating ailments and is safe to do so. It also takes into account a drug's potential for abuse. Marijuana doesn't satisfy those criteria, Rosenberg said.
But that doesn't mean marijuana advocates and the DEA should be enemies, Rosenberg stressed.
In an effort to paint the administration as a friend to the marijuana industry, Rosenberg outlined several ways in which the DEA has helped define marijuana's place in medicine:
- The DEA has never denied an application from a researcher to use lawfully produced marijuana in a study determined by the Department of Health and Human Services to be scientifically meritorious. To date, 47 applicants have been approved.
- The DEA is building an online application system for researchers to apply for Schedule I research registrations, and drafting guidelines to assist with that process.
- In the last two-plus years, the number of individuals and institutions registered by the DEA to research marijuana, marijuana extracts, derivatives and tetrahydrocannabinoils has doubled, from 161 to 354.
- The DEA and the National Institute on Drug Abuse have increased the amount of marijuana available for research by approving more growers to supply researchers.
- In December, the DEA waived certain regulatory requirements for researchers conducting FDA-authorized clinical trials on cannabis. This allowed for 90 researchers to conduct studies on human subjects.
"Folks might be surprised to learn that we support this type of research, but we do," Rosenberg said.
In a separate decision, Rosenberg announced a policy change that will increase the number of marijuana manufacturers authorized to supply researchers with the drugs they need. Only the University of Mississippi is authorized to grow for research purposes. In an April letter, the DEA said the university has 185 batches of marijuana.
"This change illustrates DEA's commitment to working together with the FDA and NIDA to facilitate research concerning marijuana and its components," the administration said on its website.
Marijuana advocates lauded the move, agreeing with Smith's assessment that it is a "positive step - however small."
Armentano called it "one bright spot in today's actions."
But it doesn't fully satisfy.
"Patients deserve more," Smith said.
Advocates say Congress should remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, similar to alcohol and tobacco, and give states power to establish their own regulatory policies.
The announcement came as El Paso County, U.S. Forest Service and DEA agents Thursday raided a 5-acre marijuana grow operation near Woodland Park. The minimum sentence for trafficking 1,000 or more marijuana plants is 10 years for first-time offenders and 20 years for second offenses, under federal penalties.
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