Pubdate: Thu, 18 Aug 2016
Source: SF Weekly (CA)
Column: Chem Tales
Copyright: 2016 Village Voice Media
Author: Alex Halperin


The Drug Enforcement Administration's decision last week not to 
reschedule marijuana highlights the absurdities of its pre-election limbo.

Marijuana will remain a Schedule I drug, meaning that the federal 
government doesn't recognize any of its medical uses and considers it 
to have high potential for abuse. "This decision isn't based on 
danger," DEA chief Chuck Rosenberg told NPR. "This decision is based 
on whether marijuana, as determined by the FDA, is a safe and 
effective medicine ... and it's not."

In one sense, Rosenberg is correct. Cannabis, the plant itself, has 
not gone through the clinical trials necessary to be approved as a 
pharmaceutical. But chemicals found in marijuana, even Rosenberg has 
acknowledged, have medical potential.

Marinol (synthetic THC) is an FDA-approved drug for AIDS-related 
weight loss and cancer-related nausea and vomiting. Epidiolex, an 
experimental drug from UK firm GW Pharmaceuticals that is comprised 
of cannabidiol (CBD), has been shown in a late-stage clinical trial 
to reduce seizures in children with a rare form of epilepsy. If it 
was easier for researchers to study marijuana in this country, this 
list would probably be longer.

Hillary Clinton, among other prominent politicians, has called for 
marijuana to be reclassified as a Schedule II drug, which would make 
it easier to study without completely legalizing it. Rescheduling 
marijuana could complicate life for an industry that would rather see 
it descheduled and regulated like alcohol. Still, many insiders were 
looking to the DEA for vindication of marijuana's benefits. They didn't get it.

Instead, the DEA maintains that the plant has no medical value. Its 
supporting evidence is that after decades of making marijuana 
research almost impossible to pursue in this country, there is a lack 
of research.

The awkwardness of this position is compounded by the 25 states that 
have already legalized medical marijuana. The states don't know more 
about the plant's medical benefits than the federal government does, 
but legislators and voters have been willing to give patients the 
benefit of the doubt.

It's easy to think of medical marijuana as a joke or a stalking horse 
for full legalization, and, to some extent, it's both. But the full 
reality is more nuanced: The plant's medical and recreational uses 
aren't easily distinguished from one another.

Marijuana users often say the drug helps with insomnia, anxiety, 
shyness, and other "soft" conditions that can also be treated with 
pharmaceuticals. More research needs to be done before we know which 
conditions marijuana can really treat, but a study published in the 
journal Health Affairs did find that doctors write fewer 
prescriptions for anxiety, pain, sleep, and depression drugs in 
states where medical marijuana is legal. In other words, many people 
prefer marijuana to pharmaceuticals for treating certain conditions, 
and part of the reason they prefer it is that it gets them high. If a 
combat veteran finds that a few joints help him get through the day, 
is that a legitimate medical use?

For now, the official answer depends on where you're reading this, 
but there are signs that the medical/recreational distinction is unsustainable.

Last month, Washington state closed down its medical marijuana 
dispensaries, pushing patients into a more heavily regulated 
recreational market. (This should also boost marijuana tax revenues.) 
The move acknowledges that whether someone is smoking weed for fun or 
health is often a meaningless distinction.

The DEA doesn't make that distinction either. But unlike Washington, 
it's unwilling to grapple with the realities of legalization. The 
agency did say it would expand the number of facilities that can 
legally grow marijuana, making it easier to study. It's possible that 
dispensaries in the future will continue to sell products that some 
customers consider medicine, and there will be separate 
marijuana-based pharmaceuticals for severely ill patients.

For an agency that exists to combat illegal drugs, the DEA's decision 
might count as a bold one, especially in the middle of an election. 
"We're not Ronald Reagan's narcs," it seems to be saying.

Writing in the Washington Post this year, Stanford professor Keith 
Humphreys suggested that a new classification could be created for 
marijuana: Schedule I-Research for "less dangerous drugs with high 
medical research potential." This is close to what the agency did, 
though the DEA's commitment to marijuana research is unproven.

Still, for anyone paying attention, the DEA remains hopelessly out of 
touch. This is frustrating to people who think they might benefit 
from medical marijuana but can't access it, and business people 
who've bet their future on the industry.

If the DEA was so inclined, it could start closing state-legal 
dispensaries tomorrow. Under President Barack Obama, it decided not 
to make that a priority. Perhaps it has realized the industry is 
already too big to shut down. It's understandable that the agency 
isn't eager to declare the end of the war on pot, but if it's going 
to be a relevant voice in marijuana policy, the DEA needs to consider 
public opinion and what facts do already exist.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom