The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) announced it had rejected a request by medical marijuana advocates to recategorize marijuana as a drug with an accepted medical use. Instead, the DEA said marijuana's inclusion in Schedule I of the federal drug regulation regime would stand because it has an elevated possibility of abuse, does not have a "currently accepted medical use in treatment" and is not safe to use under doctors' supervision.
The action was "welcome news," said Barrett Duke, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission's vice president for public policy and research.
The DEA not only upheld "the government's long-standing position on marijuana, they upheld it for the right reasons," Duke said. "They are correct to recognize that it is prone to be abused. Marijuana is a dangerous substance. It is addictive and serves as the gateway to much more destructive drug use.
"The DEA is also correct in their observation that there are no scientifically credible studies available to support the claims of those who want the drug legalized," he said. "Instead, there are multiple studies available that demonstrate the connection of marijuana use to respiratory disease, risky behavior, addiction and crime. Until credible scientific studies are conducted and convincingly contradict what we already know about the destructive effects of marijuana, this dangerous drug must remain illegal."
The ruling, which was announced July 8, came in a June 21 letter from DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart to a petitioner who had sought the change in 2002. The petition from the Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis called for the DEA to reclassify marijuana under Schedule III, IV or V of the Controlled Substances Act.
Under that federal law, Schedule I -- unlike the other four categories -- contains drugs that have no accepted medical use. In addition to marijuana, Schedule I drugs also include heroin, LSD and Ecstasy.
The nearly nine years that elapsed after the DEA received the petition included a scientific and medical evaluation, plus scheduling recommendation, by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The DEA followed HHS' recommendation and reasoning.
In May, supporters of the medical use of marijuana filed a suit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit seeking to force the Obama administration to act on the petition. After the DEA announced its decision, the advocates challenged the ruling July 21 in D.C. Circuit Court.
Medical marijuana advocates criticized the DEA decision but expressed hope they could prevail in court.
"Although this superficially looks like a defeat for the medical marijuana community, it simply maintains the status quo," said Joe Elford, chief counsel for Americans for Safe Access (ASA), which challenged the DEA action as a member of the Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis. "More importantly, however, we have foiled the government's strategy of delay and we can now go head-to-head on the merits, that marijuana really does have therapeutic value."
The DEA's ruling runs counter to policy developments in the states. Since 1996, 16 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical purposes.
More than 6,500 reports and articles support the medical benefits of marijuana, according to Americans for Safe Access. The organization says research has shown the use of marijuana has helped reduce pain in patients with HIV and multiple sclerosis and has aided in increased appetite among those with the severe lung disease COPD.
In her letter, however, Leonhart said the "known risks of marijuana use have not been shown to be outweighed by specific benefits in well-controlled clinical trials that scientifically evaluate safety and efficacy."
She also refuted the petitioner's assertion that the chances of dependence on marijuana are less than those of other Schedule I, or even Schedule II, drugs. In documents accompanying her letter, HHS says "long-term, regular use of marijuana can lead to physical dependence and withdrawal following discontinuation as well as psychic addiction or dependence," Leonhart wrote.
The DEA administrator also said marijuana does not have a "currently accepted medical use" because: "The drug's chemistry is not known and reproducible; there are no adequate safety studies; there are no adequate and well-controlled studies proving efficacy; the drug is not accepted by qualified experts; and the scientific evidence is not widely available."
The HHS document accompanying Leonhart's letter cited the following research results among its reasons for not recommending the removal of marijuana from Schedule I: Evidence exists to show sufficient use can establish a hazard to the health of the user or the safety of others, and heavy use of marijuana by smoking impairs such functions as classroom learning and the operation of motor vehicles.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.
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