Pubdate: Fri, 29 Apr 2016
Source: Alaska Dispatch News (AK)
Copyright: 2016 Alaska Dispatch Publishing
Note: Anchorage Daily News until July '14
Author: Bill Piper
Note: Bill Piper is senior director of national affairs for the Drug 
Policy Alliance. The preceding commentary was first published by The 
Washington Post and is republished here with permission.


Congress and President Obama are under pressure to reschedule 
marijuana. While rescheduling makes sense, it doesn't solve the 
state/federal conflict over marijuana (de-scheduling would be 
better). But more important, it wouldn't fix the broken scheduling 
system. Ideally, marijuana reform should be part of a broader bill 
rewriting the Controlled Substances Act.

The Controlled Substances Act created a five-category scheduling 
system for most legal and illegal drugs (although alcohol and tobacco 
were notably omitted). Depending on what category a drug is in, the 
drug is either subject to varying degrees of regulation and control 
(Schedules II through V) -- or completely prohibited, otherwise 
unregulated and left to criminals to manufacture and distribute 
(Schedule I). The scheduling of various drugs was decided largely by 
Congress and absent a scientific process -- with some strange results.

For instance, while methamphetamine and cocaine are Schedule II 
drugs, making them available for medical use, marijuana is scheduled 
alongside PCP and heroin as a Schedule I drug, which prohibits any 
medical use. Making matters worse, the CSA gives law enforcement -- 
not scientists or health officials -- the final say on how new drugs 
should be scheduled and whether or not old drugs should be 
rescheduled. Unsurprisingly, law enforcement blocks reform.

Starting in 1972, the Drug Enforcement Administration obstructed a 
formal request to reschedule marijuana for 16 years.

After being forced by the courts to make a decision, the agency held 
two years of hearings. The DEA chief administrative law judge who 
held the hearings and considered the issue concluded that marijuana 
in its natural form is "one of the safest therapeutically active 
substances known to man" and should be made available for medical 
use. Similar hearings on MDMA, aka ecstasy, concluded that it also 
has important medical uses. In both cases, the DEA overruled its 
administrative law judge and kept the drugs in Schedule I, 
unavailable for medical use.

The current drug scheduling system is also structurally flawed.

For instance, Schedule I is for drugs that are highly addictive and 
have no medical value, while the other schedules are for drugs with 
medical value but varying degrees of safety and addiction risks. 
There are no categories, however, for drugs that have no medical 
value but have not proved to be highly addictive either, such as 
various synthetic drugs like Spice or bath salts.

Nor are there categories for drugs that are waiting to be evaluated 
for medical use.

In a report published in the esteemed medical journal The Lancet, 
researchers at the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs proposed 
an alternative method for drug classification in the United Kingdom 
that might work in the United States. This new system uses a 
nine-category matrix to assess the harms of a range of licit and illicit drugs.

The new evidence-based classification system recognizes the fact that 
alcohol and tobacco cause far more individual and social harms than 
marijuana, LSD and MDMA, which have less potential for harm relative 
to other legal and illegal drugs.

The Controlled Substances Act was passed in 1970. Forty-six years and 
eight presidents later, it remains almost exactly as it was enacted 
(the only major changes have been more draconian penalties such as 
mandatory minimum sentencing or prohibiting students arrested for 
drugs from receiving student loans). While federal drug policy hasn't 
changed much since President Nixon, individual states have moved in a 
new direction.

Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia have legalized 
marijuana for medical use; four states and the District have 
legalized marijuana for nonmedical use. The federal system is too 
inflexible to keep up and should be thoroughly redesigned.

At a minimum, responsibility for determining drug classifications and 
other health determinations should be completely removed from the DEA 
and transferred to a health or scientific body. Congress should 
overhaul the entire scheduling process to ensure that decisions on 
whether to criminalize a drug or not, and whether and how to regulate 
it, are decided by an objective, independent scientific process.

An independent body such as the National Academy of Sciences should 
be appointed to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the drug 
scheduling system.

This evaluation should determine if each drug is properly classified, 
the best way to assess the risks and benefits associated with current 
and emerging drugs, and how to best redesign the scheduling system.

Treating drug use as a health issue instead of a criminal justice 
issue will require fresh thinking.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom