Pubdate: Fri, 12 Aug 2016
Source: Alaska Dispatch News (AK)
Copyright: 2016 Alaska Dispatch Publishing
Note: Anchorage Daily News until July '14
Author: Lenny Bernstein, The Washington Post


WASHINGTON - The government refused again Thursday to allow the use 
of marijuana for medical purposes, reaffirming its conclusion the 
drug's therapeutic value has not been proved scientifically and 
defying a growing clamor to legalize it for the treatment of a 
variety of conditions.

In an announcement in the Federal Register and a letter to 
petitioners, the Drug Enforcement Administration turned down requests 
to remove marijuana from "Schedule I," which classifies it as a drug 
with "no currently accepted medical use" in the United States and 
precludes doctors from prescribing it.

The decision keeps the federal government at odds with 25 states and 
the District of Columbia, which have passed laws allowing medical use 
of marijuana to some degree.

Neither Alaska's fledgling commercial industry nor its medical laws 
are affected by the news. "At the end of the day, (in) a state like 
Alaska, literally nothing changes because of today's decision," said 
John Hudak, Brookings Institute senior fellow.

Members of Congress have called for its reclassification and on 
Wednesday, the National Conference of State Legislatures adopted a 
resolution asking the federal government to remove marijuana from Schedule I.

"Right now, the science doesn't support it," Chuck Rosenberg, acting 
administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said in an 
interview Thursday. Citing a lengthy analysis conducted by the Food 
and Drug Administration, he said the decision "is tethered to the science."

The decision angered marijuana advocates. "This is a step in the 
wrong direction and is especially a disservice to those who treat 
different forms of PTSD through cannabis, like our veteran 
community," wrote Adele Tara, a Girdwood resident who is part of a 
group of Alaskans that gives cannabis to the severely ill.

The agency announced one policy change that could increase the amount 
of research conducted on marijuana: the DEA will expand the number of 
places allowed to grow marijuana for studies on its value in chronic 
pain relief, as a treatment for epilepsy and for other purposes.

Currently, only the University of Mississippi,which holds an 
exclusive contract with the National Institute on Drug Abuse, is 
federally licensed to grow marijuana for research purposes.

The latest development in the 46-year legal and policy battle over 
the status of marijuana disappointed advocates of looser restrictions 
on the drug, who had hoped the government would carve out a special 
place for marijuana in the controlled-substance regulations or move 
it to a less tightly regulated category, Schedule II.

In the words of a 2015 Brookings Institution report, a move to 
Schedule II "would signal to the medical community that (the Food and 
Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health) are ready 
to take medical marijuana research seriously, and help overcome a 
government-sponsored chilling effect on research that manifests in 
direct and indirect ways."

But as it has in previous reviews, marijuana again failed an analysis 
conducted by the FDA and NIDA. The FDA concluded medical and 
scientific data do not yet prove marijuana is safe and effective as a 
medicine. Legally, that prohibits the DEA from reclassifying the drug.

"The important thing to remember is the medical research community 
operates along a very different standard ... it seems to the average 
individual, or particularly the average marijuana reform advocate a 
no-brainer, it's actually a much more complex, a much more difficult 
conclusion to come to for a medical researcher," said Brookings' Hudak.

He added that he wasn't surprised by the decision. "At the end of the 
day, the DEA is a law enforcement institution. They are working 
closely with FDA," which Hudak called one of the most anti-marijuana 
entities in the U.S.

"We're pleased to see that the Obama Administration . . . understands 
the science the way we and almost every single medical association in 
the country understand it," said Kevin Sabet, president of Smart 
Approaches to Marijuana, which opposes loosening restrictions on marijuana.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., praised the decision to allow more 
facilities to cultivate marijuana for research, but said the decision 
doesn't go far enough. "This decision ... is further evidence that 
the DEA doesn't get it. Keeping marijuana at Schedule I continues an 
outdated, failed approach - leaving patients and marijuana businesses 
trapped between state and federal laws," Blumenauer said.

Schedule I drugs, which include LSD and heroin, as well as marijuana, 
have "no currently accepted medical use in the United States, a lack 
of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and a high 
potential for abuse."

Schedule II drugs, such as the powerful narcotic painkillers that 
have caused an epidemic of addiction over the past decade, have 
medicinal value but "a high potential for abuse which may lead to 
severe psychological or physical dependence." Marijuana was placed in 
Schedule I in 1970, when Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act.

Research has shown that some components of marijuana have promise as 
a treatment for epilepsy and chronic pain. Some people use it to 
relieve the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, although 
research has not been conducted to prove its value for that condition.

Rosenberg said while individual researchers may have shown marijuana 
or its extracts are helpful for certain conditions, the FDA has the 
most comprehensive view of the state of scientific research on the drug.

"The FDA knows this better than anyone on the planet," he said, 
though he acknowledged that "a lot of people will disagree with that."

He also noted many people misconstrue the controlled substance 
scheduling regime as a ranking of drugs' relative dangers. Clearly, 
he said, marijuana is not as dangerous as heroin, LSD and perhaps 
some of the opioids in Schedule II. "It's not the Richter scale," he 
said. But that doesn't mean cannabis and its extracts are safe for 
medical use and not prone to abuse, he added.

Academic researchers have complained registration and application 
requirements to work with Schedule I drugs make studying their 
purported benefits difficult. The DEA, however, says the number of 
researchers registered to study marijuana and its components has 
doubled in the past two years.

The governors of Rhode Island and Washington, and a New Mexico 
resident, Bryan A. Krumm, petitioned the DEA to remove marijuana from 
Schedule I. The agency most recently rejected a similar request in 
2011, touching off a legal battle to force reclassification in which 
the DEA ultimately prevailed.

With so many states allowing the use of cannabis components for 
health reasons, Rosenberg acknowledged the conflict with the federal 
government's posture. But he said prescribers need not fear the 
announcement signals a federal crackdown.

"We are not changing our enforcement priorities," he said.

It is unclear how many more facilities would be allowed to grow 
marijuana for researchers under the new rules. But the government 
signaled its intent to end the effective monopoly on cultivation 
maintained by NIDA and the University of Mississippi, officials said. 
That would allow a greater supply and a wider variety of products for 
research. Growers would apply to DEA, not NIDA, for permission to cultivate.

"If petitioners meet our criteria, and they can assure us that this 
stuff can be handled safely and securely," they likely will be given 
permission to cultivate marijuana for research purposes, he said.

The new policy also contains a "statement of principles" that reminds 
growers of the provisions of a 2014 law that governs the use of 
industrial hemp. The plant is a cannabis variant that contains a low 
concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical 
responsible for most of marijuana's impact on the brain.

The Washington Post's Chris Ingraham and Alaska Dispatch News' Laurel 
Andrews contributed to this report.
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