DEA could reclassify marijuana, allowing doctors to conduct more research
Trevor Hughes USA Today
DENVER — Marijuana users, researchers and investors are eager to hear whether federal officials will remove pot from the same drug classification as heroin, LSD and bath salts.
Federal drug officials say they are considering removing marijuana from what’s known as Schedule 1 classification, with a decision expected this summer.
The current classification makes it illegal to prescribe and declares that marijuana “has no currently accepted medical treatment use,” although 24 states permit some form of medical marijuana use.
Reclassifying marijuana would make it easier for researchers to work with the plant, which is currently subject to strict limitations and officially can be acquired only from a single government garden. Schedule 2 drugs include morphine, methamphetamine and oxycodone.
“I think it’s just common sense to allow good science to be done,” said congressman Jared Polis, who supports the change. Polis, a Colorado Democrat, has repeatedly pushed President Obama’s administration to loosen restrictions and enforcement around cannabis use.
The Drug Enforcement Administration routinely reconsiders drug classifications, and has several times declined to change marijuana’s categorization since it was added to the list in 1970. DEA officials this week declined to discuss the rescheduling process, although agency leaders earlier this year announced they were again considering the change in a letter sent to Congress. They didn’t specify a date by which they’d reach a decision.
“No one is asking to make it legal overnight. We’re saying, let’s start doing some research on it. It’s common sense,” said David Cunic, the CEO of Pazoo, which runs marijuana testing labs in Colorado and Nevada, which another set to open soon in Oregon. “People are looking for alternatives.”
Cunic, who is also a physical therapist, said he believes marijuana could serve as a safer alternative to prescription opiate painkillers. He said medical professionals are ethically obligated to empower patients with knowledge, and many doctors are concerned about the risks associated with highly addictive and potentially deadly opiates.
Not every doctor is rushing to embrace marijuana, however. Scott Krakower, an addiction disorder specialist at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, N.Y., says he’s reluctant to recommend pot to his patients because there is so little research. Unlike prescription medications, marijuana comes in a wide variety of strains and strengths, and despite centuries of use, scientists don’t know exactly how it works, especially for the range of ailments its boosters say it can aid.
“Many patients are unaware that using marijuana can have devastating consequences, including higher risk of developing a mood and psychotic disorder, increased rates of other substance use and potentially dependence to the agent itself,” Krakower said in an email. “In addition, there are concerns with lack of regulation of these products and false advertising of what they contain.”
Concerns such as those raised by Krakower are precisely the reason congressman Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat, wants to see marijuana rescheduled. If doctors have concerns, he said, scientists should be allowed to answer them.
“Maintaining the fiction of Schedule 1 categorization just destroys their credibility,” Blumenauer said of federal regulators.
The House of Representatives on Thursday overwhelmingly passed a Blumenauer-sponsored amendment that would allow Veterans Affairs doctors to recommend marijuana to veterans, the way a regular doctor can in 24 states. The Senate has passed a similar proposal, but the two versions must still be reconciled. The proposal doesn’t change marijuana’s classification but allows VA doctors to take advantage of existing state medical marijuana programs.
Blumenauer said the fact that both branches of Congress think veterans should have access to medical marijuana should prompt regulators to think seriously about rescheduling it.
“I think this moment is cresting,” he said. “The movement, the momentum, is palpable.”
John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, isn’t so sure. He said it’s unlikely the DEA and Food and Drug Administration’s doctors will reschedule marijuana this year.
“Doctors are even more risk-averse than Congress is, and the DEA is staffed almost entirely by drug warriors,” he said. Hudak called on the next president to convene a summit on marijuana across America, arguing that the federal government needs to provide more clarity on the issue.
“Pretty soon it’s going to be a liability to oppose reform,” he added. “We’re not there yet, but marijuana is going in that direction.”