The federal government has for years employed a bizarre circular logic when it comes to marijuana. Officially deemed to have a high potential for abuse and no currently accepted medical application, marijuana is listed by the Drug Enforcement Administration as a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act – on a par with heroin and LSD. Yet that very listing has severely limited the research that could settle the question of whether marijuana does indeed have therapeutic value, as attested to by countless glaucoma sufferers, nauseated cancer patients and a raft of other ailing people and their physicians who report anecdotally that marijuana eases suffering.
Last week, the DEA again rejected requests that it relist marijuana as a Schedule II drug (or lower), a major disappointment for those seeking looser controls. As long as marijuana remains a Schedule 1 drug, researchers face stiff controls that limit legal access, even for study purposes. But the DEA also announced that it would expand the number of facilities authorized to grow cannabis for distribution to government-approved researchers.
Though the latter move is heartening, it is too little and too long in coming. Last year, just eight researchers received samples from the sole government-approved cannabis farm at the University of Mississippi. Increasing the supply and variety of research-ready marijuana could allow for more and broader studies. But the government should also commit to easing the approval process for scientists seeking to do the research needed to properly evaluate marijuana.
As it is, the federal government lags far behind the American people and many state governments when it comes to marijuana. A Gallup poll last year found 58 percent of respondents support some level of legalization.
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Meanwhile, half of the states now allow medical marijuana despite the federal ban, and after November, as many as 10 states could allow some level of recreational use. That sets up a legal conflict between state and federal laws, which means that people growing and selling with the blessing of their state could face federal prosecution under a less marijuana-friendly administration than that of President Barack Obama.
This is a different kind of reefer madness. The DEA could have reclassified marijuana so that it could be treated like a prescription drug – subject to FDA oversight – for patients for whom it provides benefits. Instead, the DEA opted to keep its policies mired in the 1970s.