The DEA's Classification of Pot: Destroyed but Still Standing


In a recent Open Neurology Journal article, four University of California at San Diego researchers review the evidence concerning marijuana's medical utility and conclude that its continued classification as a Schedule I drug is "not tenable." The authors, led by psychiatrist Igor Grant, who directs the University of California Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research, examined studies involving smoked and vaporized marijuana as well as synthetic THC capsules (such as Marinol) and extracts such as Sativex, an oral spray that has been approved in several countries and is undergoing Phase III trials in the United States. They note that "control of nausea and vomiting and the promotion of weight gain in chronic inanition are already licensed uses of oral THC" and that "recent research indicates that cannabis may also be effective in the treatment of painful peripheral neuropathy and muscle spasticity from conditions such as multiple sclerosis." In light of this evidence, they say, it is plainly unjustified to keep marijuana on Schedule I, supposedly reserved for drugs with "a high potential for abuse" and "no currently accepted medical use" that cannot be used safely, even under medical supervision:

The classification of marijuana as a Schedule I drug as well as the continuing controversy as to whether or not cannabis is of medical value are obstacles to medical progress in this area. Based on evidence currently available the Schedule I classification is not tenable; it is not accurate that cannabis has no medical value, or that information on safety is lacking. It is true cannabis has some abuse potential, but its profile more closely resembles drugs in Schedule III (where codeine and dronabinol [synthetic THC] are listed). The continuing conflict between scientific evidence and political ideology will hopefully be reconciled in a judicious manner.

Hopefully! "Government-Sponsored Study Destroys DEA's Classification of Marijuana," Stephen Webster excitedly declares at The Raw Story, referring to state funding for Grant et al.'s research review. But the DEA's classification of marijuana has been destroyed so many times I've lost count. Twenty-four years ago, an administrative law judge, responding to a legal challenge initiated in 1972, recommended that marijuana be taken off Schedule I, calling it "one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man." DEA Administrator John Lawn overruled him in a decision that was upheld by a federal appeals court in 1994. All of Lawn's successors have taken the same position in response to petitions asking them to reschedule marijuana.

Still, surely an administration whose drug policy watchwords are science and compassion will finally reclassify marijuana in a way that more accurately reflects its hazards and potential benefits. Or maybe not. Last year, as I noted in the October issue of Reason and as Paul Armentano of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws reminds us, the Obama administration "formally denied a nine-year-old administrative petition filed by NORML and a coalition of public interest organizations calling on the agency to initiate hearings to reassess the present classification of marijuana." Michele Leonhart, Obama's choice to head the DEA, is so committed to anti-pot orthodoxy that she'd rather look like an idiot in front of Congress than concede that marijuana is less dangerous than any other drug. Oh, well. Maybe in the second term.