Cannabis Remains on DEA’s Most Dangerous Drugs List, But Agency Ruling Expands Research

By David Cruz

When the Drug Enforcement Administration rejected a petition to loosen restrictions on cannabis, there was something of a hue and cry from advocates — for more research and for legalization — who say the decision not only makes no scientific sense but will negatively impact their efforts, and discourage what could be a multi-billion dollar industry. The biggest objection is to the agency’s keeping cannabis as a Schedule I drug.

“Drugs that are Schedule I include things like PCP and LSD and heroin, so marijuana is still essentially in that same category,” said David Nathan, founder and president of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation. “The government is saying, with a straight face, that marijuana is a less therapeutic, more dangerous drug than even cocaine and Oxycontin, which are both in Schedule II. Schedule II means that the drug does have therapeutic use and that there’s an adequate level of safety that it can be responsibly prescribed by a physician.”

Like for, say, a medical marijuana program, which almost 40 states — including New Jersey — now have in one form or another. Critics of the DEA say that the difference between Schedule I and Schedule II is significant.

“Marijuana has demonstrated real use in certain conditions such as chemotherapy-induced nausea,” added Nathan. “There really can be no doubt about its therapeutic potential and the fact that it is a non-lethal, medically beneficial drug.”

Despite all the state’s moving to legalize recreational use of cannabis, and its generally wide social acceptance, it can sometimes seem like the DEA’s thinking is from another era.

“I can tell you that, for some reason, they still allow Percocet and oxycodone to be scheduled at a lower level in terms of danger than marijuana is, and that is just mind-blowing to consider that when everyone seems to know, every study seems to show, that the use of these types of legalized drugs are driving the heroin epidemic, which is killing our people,” countered Sen. Nick Scutari, who is leading a nascent legalization effort in New Jersey.

But the DEA says its decisions aren’t based on what lawmakers, or you, may find socially acceptable.

“Anything the DEA does, is empowered to do or is authorized to do, is contained within the Controlled Substances Act, so our guiding principles are science and the law,” noted Drug Enforcement Administration Spokesperson Russ Baer.

But the law, says Sen. Cory Booker, needs to change. Booker’s been vocal about the need to modernize the law, and recently testified before a Senate subcommittee about a bill he’s co-sponsoring.

“The bill would, among other provisions, lift barriers on marijuana treatment for patients and families,” he said. “Under current law, our veterans are banned from getting the medical treatment they so desperately need to relieve their pain, even if they’re in states that allow medical marijuana.”

But, the DEA says you shouldn’t think that they’re trying to stifle medical research. In fact, they contend, their ruling will mean more research into the potential benefits of cannabis.

“We implemented a historic and monumental policy change,” said Baer. “We have agreed to accept applications for additional growers of marijuana, both manufacturers of marijuana to end the almost 50-year government monopoly on the marijuana supply for research-grade material.”

Which is good news for scientists and recreational users alike, because the more science can tell us about the effects of cannabis, the more informed advocates and lawmakers will be when they try to get voters to buy into the concept of legalizing.