Pubdate: Sun, 22 May 2016
Source: Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN)
Copyright: 2016 The Commercial Appeal
Author: David Courtwright, Special to The Washington Post
Note: David Courtwright teaches history at the University of North Florida.


Since 1970, when President Richard Nixon signed the Controlled 
Substances Act, marijuana has been a Schedule I drug. Congress placed 
it in the most restrictive category of psychoactive substances, those 
with no currently accepted medical value and a high potential for 
abuse or dependence. The upshot was a renewed ban on marijuana, 
except for highly restricted research purposes.

I say renewed because Congress first prohibited marijuana use for 
non-industrial purposes in 1937. The Schedule I designation ratified 
the status quo, with one notable exception: The 1970 CSA in fact 
reduced federal penalties for cannabis possession, a bit of Nixon-era 
liberality few recall.

The CSA also authorized the Drug Enforcement Administration, in 
consultation with the Food and Drug Administration, to schedule, 
deschedule or reschedule drugs into different categories. The most 
restrictive category was Schedule I (no medical use), the least 
restrictive Schedule V (relatively loose prescription requirements). 
There was nothing unusual in this, scheduling already having been 
adopted in the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic 
Drugs and in other nations' drug laws.

What is unusual is that marijuana's Schedule I status is back in 
play. But marijuana researchers and the marijuana industry have very 
different aims when they call for a policy shift. Depending on 
whether the drug is rescheduled or descheduled, consumers could stand 
to benefit or lose.

On April 4, Chuck Rosenberg, the DEA's acting administrator, cosigned 
a letter to lawmakers saying the agency "understands the widespread 
interest in the prompt resolution of these petitions [to reschedule 
marijuana] and hopes to release its determination in the first half of 2016."

Cannabis researchers have their fingers crossed. They argue that 
marijuana, both the plant itself and its active components, has 
therapeutic potential in conditions as diverse as inflammatory bowel 
disease and PTSD. Moving marijuana to Schedule II or III would 
eliminate some of the onerous federal restrictions on cannabis research.

The cannabis industry's reaction has been less enthusiastic. It wants 
a recreational market, not a specialized medical market. Its goal is 
descheduling, not rescheduling. Removing marijuana from the CSA 
(something Congress can do without FDA or DEA approval) would make 
pot like alcohol or tobacco. It would be subject to local, state and 
federal taxes and regulations, though not federal prescription 
requirements or bans. As Chris Goldstein wrote in Freedom Leaf, 
congressional descheduling legislation "would allow states to 
regulate cannabis as they please."

"As they please" includes taxed recreational sales without 
therapeutic pretext, medical marijuana so easily acquired as to be 
virtually legalized, and frank commercialization. "As they please" 
evidently does not include public monopolies to limit consumption and 
diversion. Speaking at the 2016 Cannabis Science and Policy Summit, 
Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry 
Association, said, "We don't want state monopolies. We want to see 
innovation in this industry."

Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, 
agreed: "A vigorous, competitive process will produce better products 
for the consumer." The cannabis industry, with a capitalization in 
excess of $4 billion, has embraced the free market. Its opponents, 
such as Smart Approaches to Marijuana, counter that unfettered 
legalization means another Big Tobacco.

The danger is that "better products" (mostly high-THC pot and more 
seductive ways to deliver it) will produce more addiction, accidents, 
psychoses and cognitive deficits, particularly among daily users who 
account for the vast majority of sales. When the core business model 
is phishing for phools by exploiting misinformed buyers, more 
research is not necessarily welcome. If rescheduling produces 
additional studies confirming that regular cannabis use causes 
abnormal brain development, memory impairment and diminished IQ, the 
drug would look more like lead exposure than a harmless party plant.

Of course, the same research could verify cannabis' medical value. 
But evidence of serious side effects and high potential for 
dependence would make it impossible for the FDA to rationalize 
nonprescription sale or to recommend the DEA place cannabis (or 
products containing THC) in one of the CSA's least restrictive categories.

Research into marijuana's non-intoxicating compounds, such as 
cannabidiol (CBD), is another matter. Even conservative legislatures 
in states such as Florida have approved high-CBD, low-THC marijuana 
to treat pediatric epilepsy. Yet whatever PR value the industry 
derives from such products, they remain orphan drugs. The money is in 
commercializing the intoxicating strains.

Big Cannabis is not inevitable, given the growing concern over 
opioid- and alcohol-related deaths among downwardly mobile, 
working-class whites. Once burned by legal drugs, policymakers are 
twice cautious. But this much is certain: Should marijuana be 
descheduled, it will be by congressional legislation, not 
scientifically informed regulatory action by the DEA. Descheduling by 
legislative fiat would benefit the cannabis industry, not necessarily 
those in medical need.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom