Cannabis will not be rescheduled: Epic fail, or triumph of science?

For some time now, people have been awaiting the DEA’s decision on petitions to reschedule cannabis. Medical cannabis advocates felt that the Schedule 1 designation, which places marijuana in the same category as heroin, indicating that it had no medicinal value, was too stringent. Researchers had also complained that getting permission to research marijuana, and obtaining material to carry out research if studies were approved, was extremely difficult. In August 2016, the DEA finally made its announcement. Marijuana would not be rescheduled.

Why no rescheduling?

DEA Administration Chief Chuck Rosenberg said that the decision to retain a schedule 1 designation for Marijuana is based on science. After examination of scientific evidence, the organization decided that there was insufficient proof that cannabis is a safe and effective medicine. Furthermore, marijuana has a high potential for abuse, as evidenced by the fact that it is the most widely used illegal recreational drug in the US.

However, the DEA acknowledged that research into cannabis should be facilitated in order to either refute or prove its supposed medical benefits. Organizations such as Smart Approaches to Marijuana have been opposing prop 64. They say that the DEA’s decision serves as a “vindication” of their fight against rescheduling.

Is criticism of the DEA’s decision justifiable?

Medical marijuana advocates point out that schedule 2 drugs are not freely available, but are much easier to research as there is less red tape. For example, methamphetamine is a schedule 2 drug. They point towards the results of existing studies, anecdotal evidence, and the fact that pharmaceuticals made from cannabinoids extracted from marijuana already have accepted medical uses. All of these point towards medical uses for marijuana.

There was widespread incredulity that the DEA should consider marijuana as dangerous as heroin, and many researchers believe that the DEA has not gone far enough in addressing the difficulties inherent in researching a Schedule 1 substance. CNN’s Dr Sanjay Gupta said that the cost of tight security measures that have to be instituted when researching “dangerous” substances, would be enough to deter many scholars. In an impassioned article, Gupta called the decision “hypocrisy”, and this sentiment was echoed by many other commentators.

Maintaining the status quo

Despite the uproar caused by the DEA’s decision, it should be remembered that marijuana always has been a schedule 1 substance. States are being allowed to pursue their own policies regarding medical and even recreational marijuana, and federal government has agreed not to oppose this unless there is a “social necessity” to do so. In other words, provided marijuana programs are well-regulated, they will be allowed to continue.

Although surveys show that the majority of Americans believe that marijuana use should be allowed for medical reasons, it is not the DEA’s place to bow to public pressure. Instead, it is their duty is to make conservative and safe decisions based on conclusive scientific evidence. Regretfully, there is a dearth of scientific evidence in favor of using all the many compounds in marijuana as medicines. Of the 400 cannabinoids in cannabis, just over 100 have been isolated, and research has primarily dealt with only two ingredients, cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

Is the DEA contradicting itself?

It may seem odd that the DEA says it will be encouraging research into a substance it claims has no medicinal value to speak of, but its hands are tied says attorney Chris Houghton. The very fact that cannabis has always been classified as a schedule 1 substance has limited the research that could have proven the case for lowering restrictions. By facilitating research, the DEA is leaving the door open for that proof to be obtained.

In addition, there is no doubt that marijuana has some worrying side-effects. The “high” it imparts can impact on traffic safety if users were to drive while stoned, and although the percentage of users who become addicted to marijuana is fairly low, it is nevertheless significant. While it is clearly not in the same league as heroin in terms of its dangers, its reported benefits have not been fully proven. How is the DEA to weigh risks against benefits under these circumstances? Many analysts say that the DEA’s decision to maintain the status quo is not unexpected.

Politics, rather than science, may have the final say

Houghton says that rescheduling may still be on the cards. He says that the initial decision to classify marijuana as schedule 1 was a “mistaken” political one. With increasing pressure from advocacy groups and growing public acceptance for the idea of using marijuana as a medicine, a new administration may yet reschedule it.

Rescheduling marijuana would not affect the illegality of recreational use, but would allow for much more intensive research into a plant that seems to have both positive and negative properties.

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