When the well-respected Brookings Institution issued its report, Ending the U.S. Government’s War on Medical Marijuana Research, there may have been a unified sigh of relief from medical cannabis advocates. It is true the Report was fairly scathing toward the federal government’s handling of medical cannabis research process and the barriers that have been created to prevent research in our country.
But, the Brookings Report isn’t as much about research as it is about policy. Existing federal government policy makes it difficult—well, nearly impossible unless you’re a researcher with incredible patience and determination—to follow up on existing research to conduct further related research, let alone conduct new research.*
Rescheduling marijuana from a Schedule I substance to a Schedule II substance is considered in the report. As pointed out in the Report, rescheduling is no easy task. “A petition, initiated from an outside party or from within the administration, must be reviewed first by the Department of Health and Human Services (via the Food and Drug Administration [FDA]), and then by the attorney general, who typically delegates that task to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), on eight key factors to determine if there is a scientifically accepted medical use for the drug, its potential for and history of abuse, and any risk to the public health. Historically, four petitions that have been initiated to reschedule marijuana or remove it from the schedules entirely have been denied or stalled by DEA with disposition times ranging from five to more than 20 years.”
Further, the Report mentions, congressional rescheduling of cannabis would be a much simpler process. “Congress can amend the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) to move cannabis to Schedule II (or to another schedule or off the schedules entirely) without going through the same administrative process that binds the attorney general.”
However, is rescheduling the best solution?
If cannabis is rescheduled to a Schedule II drug, it would be recognition from the federal government that medical cannabis research is supported, thereby shedding some risk aversion associated with the plant. Doctors, researchers, universities, hospitals…would no longer feel their reputations are questioned. It would also signal to the medical community that the FDA and NIH (National Institutes of Health) are ready to take medical cannabis research seriously and most likely simplify the process.
However, access to medical cannabis for research would require researchers to go through the DEA, which licenses manufacturers for all controlled substances and enforces production quotas on Schedule I and II substance.
Medical cannabis would join the ranks of opiates such as Codeine, Morphine, and Oxycodone and, though Schedule II substances have accepted medical use in the U.S., they are also identified as having high potential for abuse and may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence.
Rescheduling medical cannabis opens up other issues too. For example, medical cannabis would not suddenly be legal and available to patients at the federal level, Big Pharma could become Big Marijuana, and states would need to reschedule medical cannabis policies under the Uniform Act—another potential Pandora’s Box.
Is that what we, as medical cannabis advocates, want?
I asked Paul Armentano, Deputy Director of NORML and Oaksterdam University Faculty Member, for his insight.
“Our public policies ought to be guided by science and evidence. But in the case of marijuana policy, regulations are in place for the purpose of stifling scientific progress in order to uphold cannabis’ longstanding criminal prohibition and Schedule I restricted status. Since the agencies in place to oversee and preserve cannabis prohibition are the very same agencies that control the approval process for clinical marijuana research, it remains unlikely that anything short of seismic shift in federal marijuana policy — such as removing cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act altogether — will lead to the sort of systemic changes necessary to permit the type of rational, objective review cannabis so deserves,” said Armentano.
“That said, it must be acknowledged that despite existing barriers to research, ample studies already exist to contradict cannabis’ federal, Schedule I status as a substance without medical utility, lacking acceptable safety, and possessing a high potential of abuse. More clinical research is welcome, but unfortunately science has never driven marijuana policy. If it did, the United States would already have a very different policy in place.”
While Armentano’s comments echo some of what the Brookings Report included, his perspective to de-schedule cannabis is right on the money. Isn’t that what we really want to advocate for?
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