While the DEA and its agents undoubtedly work hard to keep drugs out of the hands of criminals and minors; it seems as if some of their policies may have become archaic. Despite the abundance of research studies and surmounting evidence outlining the medicinal benefits of cannabis, on the morning of August 11th, the DEA announced that it would decline to reclassify cannabis (currently a schedule one narcotic) under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Cannabis’s status as Schedule I indicates that the substance in question has “no currently accepted medical use”, a “high potential for abuse”, and a “lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision.” To many people within the medical cannabis community this decision not to reevaluate the plants status under the CSA seems puzzling. However, it seems that the DEA and federal government are still wary about the plants supposed medical benefits.
A possible decision to reschedule cannabis had been anticipated for months, especially after the recent legalization initiatives and the plethora of medicinal programs in various states lending hope to those seeking progress on the national front. An excerpt from the DEA announcement explained:
“Marijuana has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States. Based on the established five-part test for making such determination, marijuana has no ‘currently accepted medical use’ because: As detailed in the HHS evaluation, the drug’s chemistry is not known and reproducible; there are no adequate safety studies; there are no adequate and well-controlled studies proving efficacy; the drug is not accepted by qualified experts; and the scientific evidence is not widely available.”
Of course, needless to say, plenty of medical experts throughout the country have accepted the efficacy and safety of medical cannabis - even esteemed neurosurgeon and Chief Medical Correspondent for CNN, Sanjay Gupta, recently changed his stance on medical marijuana calling for a “medical marijuana revolution”. Scientific literature from 2000 - 2015 has overwhelmingly shown cannabis to be therapeutically effective in cases of epilepsy, gliomas, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, fibromyalgia, dystonia, hepatitis C, diabetes, osteoporosis, MRSA, rheumatoid arthritis, incontinence, GI disorders, sleep apnea, hypertension, HIV, Tourette’s syndrome, chronic pain, ALS, multiple sclerosis, Huntington’s disease, PTSD, and many others. If there is a lack of research up to the DEA’s standards it may be due to their own restrictions on growing the plant for research purposes, which creates a vicious cycle that allows the agency to shut out the current findings as well as future research. Perhaps the only silver lining of the DEA announcement was the news of a slight expansion in the government’s program to license cannabis production for research purposes. Hopefully, this is the first step in making it possible for cannabis to be researched on the level the DEA requires. However, to many, the viewpoint that says the agency is just being properly cautious - as they should with any substance - is contradicted by hypocrisy when it comes to the federal government’s approach to other, more dangerous substances.
In April of 2015 a Sacramento judge upheld the constitutionality of the Schedule I classification, stating that the law should remain in place as long as there is any dispute whatsoever among experts as to safety and efficacy. However, the list of dangerous drugs treated with less caution by federal agencies than non-toxic, natural, and time-tested cannabis, is a long one – even when medical experts disagree on the safety of their use. Only 9 percent of people who try cannabis develop any kind of use disorder, compared to 15 percent of alcohol users, and 33 percent of nicotine users. Not to mention that long term or excessive use of either of these substances (alcohol and nicotine) can lead to fatal consequences, unlike cannabis. When looking at other scheduled substances, it becomes even more clear that government agencies apply their scheduling system haphazardly at best, especially when it comes to opioid drug classifications. Opioid drugs are scheduled in 4 out of 5 available schedules, despite these prescription opiates being responsible for 165,000 deaths between 1999 and 2014 in the US. Schedule IV includes drugs such as Xanax, Valium, and Klonopin (benzodiazepines), which are involved in 30 percent of fatal drug overdoses. LSD is considered Schedule III drug, and perhaps most bizarrely of all, crack, speed, and meth are considered Schedule II. To reiterate, in terms of the DEA’s classification system that means that the organization views prescription opiates, crack, meth, and LSD all as having less potential for abuse and generally higher levels of safety, than cannabis.
In addition to the overall harmlessness of cannabis and the hypocrisy of the scheduling system, medical and legal cannabis have been proven to be able to replace the use of other more harmful substances. Studies have suggested that when states enact medical cannabis laws, they see a 25 percent drop in fatal opioid overdoses. More direct research on patients showed that cannabis can be even more effective than conventional pain treatments. Other research has even shown medicinal cannabis to be able to replace a wide variety of prescription drugs.
As citizens we all owe our thanks to the DEA and those within the organization who fight to keep us safe from harmful substances and black market groups who sell these substances to profit. However, if the government’s approach to classifying cannabis isn’t based on the reality of medical efficacy or safety, what is it based on? The scheduling system does not seem to fit into a worldview based on the reality of current research. Luckily, American society no longer seems content to let the DEA dictate the rate of progress on how various drugs are treated in America. The organization is finding itself outpaced by progress on a state and local level, and not only with regard to cannabis. As the opiate abuse epidemic makes its way through middle America, much of the public - as well as law enforcement - are taking a public health based approach to curbing opiate abuse instead of a criminal one. In turn, this has led to a newfound interest in alternatives to opiates for pain treatment, such as cannabis - as most of us know medical cannabis has become law in 25 states, with 4 states legalizing recreational use. The federal government would do well to update its views on the matter and change its outdated policies and scheduling system, or it will soon render itself irrelevant when it comes to the population’s view on cannabis, and possibly even as an illegitimate force when it comes to enforcing and determining drug classifications in America.