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Stop Treating Marijuana Like Heroin

| Aug 17, 2016 | Articles, Commentary

Supporters of a saner marijuana policy scored a small victory this week when the Obama administration said it would authorize more institutions to grow marijuana for medical research. But the government passed up an opportunity to make a more significant change.

The Drug Enforcement Administration on Thursday turned down two petitions— one from the governors of Rhode Island and Washington and the other from a resident of New Mexico — requesting that marijuana be removed from Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act. Drugs on that list, which include heroin and LSD, are deemed to have no medical use; possession is illegal under federal law, and researchers have to jump through many hoops to obtain permission to study them and obtain samples to study. Having marijuana on that list is deeply misguided since many scientists and President Obama have said that it is no more dangerous than alcohol.

Over the years, Congress and attorneys general have deferred to the expertise of the D.E.A., which is the part of the Justice Department that enforces the nation’s drug laws. So the D.E.A. has amassed extensive control over drug policy making. It determines who gets to grow marijuana for research and which scholars are allowed to study it, for example. It has strongly resisted efforts by scientists, state officials and federal lawmakers to reclassify marijuana by rejecting or refusing to acknowledge evidence that marijuana is not nearly as harmful as federal law treats it.

Since 1968, the University of Mississippi has been the only institution allowed to grow the plant for research. This has severely limited availability. The D.E.A. now says that because researchers are increasingly interested in studying marijuana, it will permit more universities to grow the cannabis plant and supply it to researchers who have been approved to conduct studies on it. This should make it easier for researchers to obtain varieties of marijuana with varying concentrations of different compounds.

Apart from the scarcity of research-grade marijuana, the drug’s Schedule 1 status means that scientists have to obtain multiple approvals from different federal agencies like the D.E.A. and the Food and Drug Administration to conduct research. By comparison, the government makes it much easier to study opioids and other dangerous drugs that are listed on Schedules 2 to 5.

The D.E.A. and the F.D.A. insist that there is not enough scientific evidence to justify removing marijuana from Schedule 1. This is a disingenuous argument; the government itself has made it impossible to do the kinds of trials and studies that could produce the evidence that would justify changing the drug’s classification.

As the D.E.A. tiptoes toward reconsidering marijuana policies, voters all over the country are expanding access to the drug through initiatives. Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington State and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational use, and 25 states and the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have legalized medical marijuana. Residents of at least five states — Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada — will vote on ballot measures to legalize recreational marijuana in November, and residents of Arkansas and Florida will vote on measures to legalize medical marijuana.

The Obama administration has done the right thing by allowing state legalization efforts to proceed. But the next president could easily undo that policy. Hillary Clinton has said she supports letting states legalize the drug and removing it from Schedule 1. Donald Trump has said he is personally opposed to legalization of recreational use, but he supports medical marijuana and the right of states to set their own policies.

Removing marijuana from Schedule 1 would be ideal. Reducing research restrictions and lessening penalties for users would be a step in the right direction.