As knowledge of the benefits of medical marijuana increases, a cannabis reschedule seems likely in 2017. The biggest obstacle is political opposition and existing legislation against the use of medical marijuana. Will 2017 be the year that the U.S. becomes fair towards the medical marijuana industry?
In an interview with CBS news in 2015, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy suggested how cannabis can be helpful for some medical conditions, and that science should dictate the United States’ policy on the matter. In August of 2016, the Obama administration denied two petitions; the first by a New Mexico health provider and a second one by two Democratic governors, to reschedule cannabis and how it treats cannabis under federal drug control laws. The decision was based on a “scientific and medical evaluation” conducted by the US Food and Drug Administration at the request of the DEA, which declared cannabis has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”
While both the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and DEA raised concerns about the abuse potential of cannabis, the critical basis for this decision remains the same, neither HHS nor DEA found that cannabis has a currently accepted medical use in the United States. Despite the fact that the U.S. Patent Office has issued patent #6630507 to the Health and Human Services, filed on February 2nd 2001. The patent lists the use of cannabinoids found within the cannabis sativa plant as useful in certain neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and HIV dementia.
In a letter to the petitioners, Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and New Mexico nurse practitioner Bryan Krumm, the DEA said doctors are responsible for treating patients, but the FDA makes decisions about drug safety: “Simply put, evaluating the safety and effectiveness of drugs is a highly specialized endeavor.” It’s worth noting that the DEA accepts Marinol (dronabinol) is an FDA-approved synthetic cannabinoid and it was placed in Schedule III in 1999.
What stands in the way of a broad role for medical science in cannabis policy is the Controlled Substances Act. Under this law, cannabis is listed as a Schedule I substance, meaning the government claims it has a high potential for abuse and no current accepted medical use. Substances classified in Schedules II-V are still subject to varying degrees of control, but have a recognized medical use and may be dispensed with a prescription under certain circumstances. They are also subject to robust research, testing, and manufacture. For cannabis to enjoy the same benefits, it would need to be rescheduled.
Critics of the DEA have pointed out that cannabis researchers are caught in a Catch-22. In order to have more research, scientists need to do more studies. But in order to do that, their studies must be approved by federal agencies, including the DEA, the FDA and occasionally the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the largest public funder of cannabis research.
The NIDA currently contracts with the University of Mississippi, which has held the sole license to grow research-grade cannabis in the entire country since 1968. Any US study that looks at cannabis needs to get its strains from the institute, whose mission isn’t to prove efficacy of the drug but rather its harm and abuse potential.
“Science has been shackled by politics for decades. Controlled trials couldn’t be done without begging NIDA,” said Dr. Sue Sisley, a psychiatrist formerly with the University of Arizona. Sisley says she was let go from the university because of her research into cannabis. In April 2016, the DEA approved Sisley’s proposal to study the effectiveness of cannabis to treat PTSD in veterans. It is the first such study in the country.
There are two ways by which the scheduling of cannabis can be changed: congressional action and administrative action. Congress has the power to reschedule cannabis, either through new legislation specific to cannabis or through tailored amendments to the Controlled Substances Act. The first bill that proposed to move cannabis from Schedule I to Schedule II was introduced by republican Representative Stewart McKinney from Connecticut in 1981. Similar bills have been introduced perennially since then, most recently by republican Rep. H. Morgan Griffith of Virginia (H.R. 4498), all of which died in committee. In 2011, Reps. Ron Paul (R-TX) and Barney Frank (D-MA) introduced a bill to remove cannabis from the schedules entirely “de-scheduling” it, which also died in committee.
President Obama has contended that rescheduling cannabis is a job for Congress, while others rightly argue the administration has the authority to do so unilaterally. It is ironic that the president, who is so often criticized for overreaching his authority, is shrinking from the administrative power that Congress has granted him. Going back to 1961 to present day, 11 US Surgeons General were asked their views on medical cannabis and only two of them had a negative stance-David Satcher(appointed by President Clinton) and C. Everett Koop (appointed by President Reagan) .