Cannabis has been approved by 16 states and the nation’s capital to treat a range of illnesses, but in early July the federal US government ruled yet again that it has no accepted medical use and should remain classified as a highly dangerous drug like heroin.
The decision comes almost nine years after medical marijuana supporters asked the government to reclassify cannabis to take into account a growing body of worldwide research that shows its effectiveness in treating certain diseases, from glaucoma to multiple sclerosis.
Despite Ruling, Critics Happy
Advocates for the medical use of the drug criticized the ruling but were still happy that the Obama administration has finally acted, as this allows them to appeal to the federal courts.
The decision to deny the request was made by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and comes less than two months after advocates asked the U.S. Court of Appeals to force the administration to respond to their petition.
Politics Trumps Science
“We have foiled the government’s strategy of delay, and we can now go head-to-head on the merits,” said Joe Elford, chief counsel for Americans for Safe Access and the lead attorney on the lawsuit. “The ruling is clearly motivated by a political decision that is anti-marijuana,” he added.
DEA Administrator Michele M. Leonhart said she rejected the request because marijuana “has a high potential for abuse,” “has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States” and “lacks accepted safety for use under medical supervision.”
Same Old Story
This is the third time that petitions to reclassify marijuana have been rejected. The first was filed in 1972 and denied 17 years later. The second was filed in 1995 and denied six years later. Both decisions were appealed, but the courts sided with the federal government.
The Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis filed its petition in October 2002. In 2004, the DEA asked the Department of Health and Human Services to review the science. The department recommended in 2006 that marijuana remain classified as a dangerous drug. Four and a half years then elapsed before the current administration issued a final denial.
Contrary to Mounting Evidence
The DEA’s decision comes as researchers continue to identify beneficial effects. Dr. Igor Grant, a neuropsychiatrist who is the director of the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at UC San Diego, said state-supported clinical trials show that marijuana helps with neuropathic pain and muscle spasticity.
He said the federal government’s position discourages scientists from pursuing research needed to test the drug’s medical effectiveness. “We’re trapped in kind of a vicious cycle here,” he said. “It’s always a danger if the government acts on certain kinds of persuasions or beliefs rather than evidence.”
In 2009, the American Medical Association urged the government to review its classification of marijuana “with the goal of facilitating the conduct of clinical research and development of cannabinoid-based medicines, and alternate delivery methods.”
History of Decriminalization Calls
When Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, it listed marijuana as a Schedule I drug, the most restrictive of five categories. But some federal officials have questioned that decision. In 1972, a commission recommended that marijuana be decriminalized.
And in 1988, a DEA administrative law judge concluded that “marijuana has been accepted as capable of relieving the distress of great numbers of very ill people.” The National Cancer Institute, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, notes that marijuana may help with nausea, loss of appetite, pain and insomnia.
Nonetheless, the DEA concluded that marijuana has no accepted medical use “because its chemistry is not known and adequate studies have not been done on its usefulness or safety,” Leonhart said.