Pubdate: Thu, 07 Apr 2016
Source: Washington Times (DC)
Copyright: 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.
Author: Andrea Noble


Move Would Ease Scientific Research

The Drug Enforcement Administration says it plans to decide within 
the next several months whether to change the federal status of 
marijuana, according to a letter sent to lawmakers this week.

Marijuana is currently classified as a Schedule I drug, alongside the 
likes of LSD and heroin, which means it is deemed to have a high 
potential for abuse and no accepted medical use. Rescheduling could 
make it easier for researchers to study potential uses of the drug, a 
move that medical marijuana advocates would cheer.

The letter to lawmakers, signed by the heads of the DEA, the 
Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of National 
Drug Control Policy, states that the DEA has received scientific and 
medical evaluations as well as a scheduling recommendation from HHS 
and that it hopes to release a determination on rescheduling "in the 
first half of 2016."

The letter does not disclose the HHS rescheduling recommendation.

Rescheduling of a Schedule I to a Schedule II drug is rare. The DEA 
has done so just five times, according to a 2015 report by the 
Brookings Institution.

While Schedule II drugs are still classified as having high potential 
for abuse, they have an accepted medical use in treatment and can be 
prescribed under tight restrictions. Morphine, oxycodone and cocaine 
fall into this category.

"Reclassifying cannabis will make scientific research easier and will 
send a strong signal that the U.S. government is finally ready to 
acknowledge that marijuana has medical value," said Tom Angell, 
chairman of the advocacy group the Marijuana Majority.

Igor Grant, director of the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at 
the University of California, San Diego, is one researcher with 
firsthand experience navigating the bureaucratic hurdles it takes to 
gain approval for a marijuana study. He says past studies aimed at 
determining whether marijuana has medicinal effects have taken six to 
18 months just to gain approval.

Rescheduling marijuana would make it easier to obtain approvals and 
require a research facility to get federal agencies to sign off on 
related studies or study modifications less often, Dr. Grant said.

"It would make it easier practically," he said.

With the arduous constraints in place, others have opted instead to 
engage in clinical trials to study effects of cannabinoids, the 
active compound in marijuana, rather than marijuana itself.

Kevin Hill, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical 
School's McLean Hospital, is overseeing two studies involving 
cannabinoids that he said may help determine ways to treat a small 
percentage of marijuana users who become addicted to the drug.

Using cannabinoids that are Schedule II and Schedule III drugs makes 
it easier to get federal agencies to sign off on the studies. That 
still doesn't address the reality that with marijuana legal for 
medicinal use in 23 states and the District of Columbia, a lot of 
people are using marijuana as medicine to treat ailments that haven't 
been well-studied, Dr. Hill said.

"We need to have more of the evidence," he said.

While researchers remain hopeful, others are skeptical that the DEA 
will reschedule marijuana.

Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which is 
against recreational marijuana legalization, said rescheduling would 
be more of a symbolic victory for advocates than a real victory for 
researchers. He agrees that it should be easier for researchers to 
study the effects of marijuana and argues that the DEA could support 
such research by rescheduling additional cannabinoid compounds as 
Schedule II or Schedule III drugs - but he sees rescheduling the drug 
itself as a step too far.

"It's very different," Mr. Sabet said. "We don't smoke opium to get 
the effects of morphine."

Amid growing support nationwide for legalization of medical and 
recreational use of marijuana, DEA acting Administrator Chuck 
Rosenberg has taken issue with arguments regarding potential medical 
benefits of marijuana being used to push legalization efforts.

In a meeting with reporters late last year, Mr. Rosenberg 
acknowledged that some extracts of marijuana have shown potential to 
treat illnesses including childhood epilepsy, but he said that 
shouldn't be construed to mean that smoking marijuana is safe.

"We can have an intellectually honest debate about whether or not we 
want to legalize something that is bad and dangerous, but don't call 
it medicine. That's a joke," he said. "My view is that we will 
support any legitimate research into the efficacy of marijuana for 
its constituent parts as a medicine. But I think the notion that 
state legislatures just decree it so is ludicrous."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom