Pubdate: Sun, 10 Jul 2016
Source: Orange County Register, The (CA)
Copyright: 2016 The Orange County Register
Author: Brooke Edwards Staggs


At the same time Californians are preparing to vote on the 
legalization of adult marijuana use, the federal government is 
weighing whether pot should continue to be classified as a top-tier 
narcotic on par with heroin.

Within a month, the Drug Enforcement Administration is expected to 
release a much-anticipated decision that could alter cannabis' 
ranking in the hierarchy of controlled substances - a formal listing 
that affects everything from medical research to taxing policy.

Since the list was created in 1970, marijuana has been ranked in 
Schedule I - the most restrictive category - alongside heroin, LSD 
and peyote. The designation is reserved for drugs the DEA says have 
no proven medical use and are highly addictive.

"We're bound by the science," said Melvin Patterson, a spokesman for the DEA.

But many experts and advocates say the current classification is 
increasingly at odds with scientific studies on marijuana, which 
suggest the drug has medical value in treating chronic pain, seizures 
and a number of other conditions, with a lower addiction rate than alcohol.

The DEA ranking also lags behind a growing public consensus. Roughly 
80 percent of Americans believe medical marijuana should be legal, 
according to recent polls, and some 60 percent support legalizing the 
drug for all adults.

"In 2016, this notion that cannabis possesses potential harms equal 
to that of heroin ... simply doesn't pass the smell test," said Paul 
Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the 
Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML.

Medical marijuana is legal in 25 states. Recreational use is allowed 
in four states plus Washington, D.C. If California approves 
recreational use in November, 1 in 6 Americans will live in a state 
where adults would be allowed to freely use cannabis.

The question of how cannabis should be ranked has been hotly debated 
since Congress placed it in the Schedule I group when it passed the 
Controlled Substances Act nearly 46 years ago. The drug's 
classification has been reviewed periodically, with the latest 
re-examination prompted by a petition filed with the DEA five years 
ago by the then-governors of Rhode Island and Washington.

In April, the DEA advised Congress that it expected to announce a 
decision in the first half of 2016.

Patterson said officials now "clearly anticipate something happening 
in the next month."


The agency has several options: Keep cannabis as a Schedule I drug; 
reclassify some or all of its compounds to a lower schedule; or 
remove the plant from the controlled substances list altogether.

There is a greater chance than ever that marijuana will be 
rescheduled, said John Hudak, who studies the topic as a deputy 
director with the Brookings Institution. But he still expects pot to 
remain a Schedule I drug.

"It needs to cross a threshold that says it has an accepted medical 
value," Hudak said. "While there are plenty of patients and doctors 
who do believe it has medical value, that's not a universal belief in 
the medical community."

Leslie Bocskor, president of Las Vegas-based cannabis advisory 
company Electrum Partners, thinks the odds slightly favor a 
reclassification of marijuana to Schedule II. That category includes 
morphine and cocaine, which the DEA says are highly addictive but 
have some medical value. A form of cocaine, for example, is used by 
some dentists as a local anesthetic.

The least restrictive of the five schedule categories, Schedule V, 
includes cough syrup with a bit of codeine.

Alcohol and tobacco aren't included on the DEA's controlled 
substances list, even though federal studies have found both are 
associated with higher dependency rates than marijuana.

Patterson said the DEA frequently hears from people frustrated that 
marijuana hasn't been rescheduled sooner.

"They have their mind made up on what marijuana does in the short 
term," he said. "But what about different strains? What about 10 
years from now or even 20 years from now? Long-term effects matter."


For the medical marijuana community, even reclassifying cannabis as a 
Schedule II drug would offer some vindication.

"At a minimum, it would bring an end to the federal government's 
long-standing intellectual dishonesty that marijuana 'lacks accepted 
medical use,' " NORML's Armentano said.

Such a shift by the the DEA also might offer a small boost to at 
least half a dozen states with medical or recreational marijuana 
initiatives on the ballot this November.

That potential to give some credence to legalization efforts is one 
of the reasons a few members of Congress, including Sen. Chuck 
Grassley, R-Iowa, and the organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana 
cite in arguing against reclassifying marijuana.

"Rescheduling would simply be a symbolic victory for advocates who 
want to legalize marijuana," SAM wrote in a policy paper on the issue.

But both the California and American medical associations say 
rescheduling pot could lower the barriers a bit for federally 
sanctioned drug research.

The DEA never has turned down a marijuana research request that met 
federal criteria, Patterson said. But experts say red tape related to 
Schedule I drug research is so formidable that it discourages 
applications. So though there are tens of thousands of peer-reviewed 
studies on marijuana, there are few costly and rigorous double-blind, 
placebo-controlled trials involving cannabis.

Moreover, researchers say, marijuana studies are saddled with 
restrictions that don't apply to other Schedule I drugs.

Since 1968, for example, the federal government has said only a 
tightly controlled stock of high-quality marijuana grown under 
contract by the University of Mississippi can be used for 
FDA-approved studies. Armentano said that restricts the supply 
available for research.

If marijuana is reclassified to at least Schedule III - alongside 
Tylenol with codeine and anabolic steroids - it would mean the 
nation's rapidly growing number of cannabis-related businesses could 
begin deducting operating expenses from their federal taxes.

Under a tax rule imposed during the war on drugs by President Ronald 
Reagan's administration in the 1980s, businesses dealing in Schedule 
I or II substances are prohibited from writing off common expenses 
such as rent, utilities or advertising.

Harborside Health Center, a large Oakland dispensary, has been 
battling the IRS over the rule for five years after being assessed 
$2.4 million for illegal deductions. A decision in that case is expected soon.


Even if cannabis is moved down the controlled substances list to the 
least-restrictive category, the industry still would be likely to 
face business and regulatory hurdles.

Armentano likened such a change, should it come, to the first stride 
in a marathon.

"Technically, it gets you closer to the finish line," he said. "But 
you still have a whole hell of a long way to go."

Pot would remain an illegal substance under federal law. 
Reclassification wouldn't necessarily open access to banking 
services, Brookings' Hudak said. And doctors wouldn't automatically 
switch to writing prescriptions, as opposed to "recommendations," for 
medical marijuana, since that's allowed only for FDA-approved drugs.

"There are certain people who play up rescheduling as an 
earth-shattering reform," Hudak said. "It is not."He said sweeping 
changes would come only in the unlikely event that cannabis is 
completely descheduled, putting it on par with alcohol.

That would allow local governments to create cannabis policies free 
from federal interference, Armentano said, the way they can set their 
own hours for when bars stop serving alcohol or make entire counties "dry."

Armentano isn't optimistic the DEA will move marijuana to a less 
restrictive category, but he said there has been one positive result 
from the current review.

"There's attention being paid to how they handle this situation in a 
way that just wasn't there before," he said. "If the DEA goes down 
the same path as it has in the past, I think they're going to have 
some explaining to do."
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