Last week, CannaBiz covered local activists' demonstration outside the Air Force Academy before President Barack Obama's widely watched commencement address. As cars from all over the country poured in, the loosely affiliated Cannabis Patient Rights Coalition spoke out — asking the mayor to stop tightening local regulations and the president to stop classifying cannabis as an illegal narcotic.
That federally illegal status is cause for much consternation in Colorado's burgeoning industry and all those who operate, regulate, litigate, finance and insure it. But, as the activists lining the road into the Air Force Academy on the morning of June 2 readily admit, changing that status has to be done properly.
The protesters called for descheduling cannabis, not rescheduling. The latter "would turn it into a pharmaceutical," according to organizer and trained cannabinoid therapist Bridget Dandaraw-Seritt. "And that would actually be a step back in a state like ours."
First, a little background. The 1970 Schedule I classification was meant to be temporary, pending review by the Nixon administration's National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse. Although reports from that commission acknowledged the "evils of marihuana [were] based much more on fantasy than on proven fact," the era's socially conservative politicians nonetheless decided to keep cannabis classified as a substance that had the greatest potential for abuse and no medicinal value. That's why today, the federal government considers cannabis a more dangerous drug than cocaine and meth, despite widespread acceptance that the plant is relatively harmless for most and evidently lifesaving for some.
The legislative branch has tried and failed to provide a fix. U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colorado, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders proposed bills to deschedule marijuana, regulating it instead like alcohol or tobacco. Another bill with a whole slew of co-sponsors, including House members Ed Perlmutter, D-Colorado, and Mike Coffman, R-Colorado, to reschedule cannabis to Schedule II also stalled out in Congress.
Failing in their own branch, eight senators (none from Colorado) wrote nearly a year ago to the heads of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Health and Human Services Department (HHS) and White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy urging administrative action.
"While the federal government has emphasized research on the potential harms associated with the use of marijuana, there is still very limited research on the potential health benefits of marijuana," the senators wrote. "With the patient pool of medical marijuana users growing in the United States, we believe that federal agencies have both an opportunity and a responsibility to craft a sensible research and public health strategy that allows us to generate meaningful data and conclusions from this ongoing natural experiment."
The DEA has rejected rescheduling petitions four times already, but in its response to the senators' letter, the agency said to expect a determination in the "first half of 2016," or, in other words, by the end of June.
The repercussions, of course, are as yet unknown. As for how, say, moving cannabis to Schedule II or III would affect Colorado's regulatory structure, Lynn Granger, spokeswoman for the state Marijuana Enforcement Division, says, "We try not to speculate unless it's a reality."
Dandaraw-Seritt of the Cannabis Patient Rights Coalition worries if marijuana gets rescheduled, pharmaceutical companies would take over the market.
"Measured doses would be really nice, but not isolated compounds. All the different ratios of cannabinoids and terpenes work together to create an effect. It's super-individual," she told the Indy. "[Cannabis] should be treated like an alternative medicine or nutritional supplement like oregano."
Mason Tvert, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, points out that a Schedule II classification would open the door to much-needed research and let defendants in federal court introduce medical need as evidence, but wouldn't lift excessive taxes off marijuana businesses or resolve the industry's banking issue.
"A change in federal law wouldn't necessarily impact Colorado law, unless it inspired other policy changes," Tvert said. "But it could provide an excuse for [federal policymakers] not to take any further action."
That's why Tvert's organization supports total descheduling.
"We don't have alcohol or tobacco on the drug schedule, so why should we put marijuana there?" Tvert said. "Going down to Schedule II would make federal law only look completely ridiculous, not utterly completely ridiculous. And that's not resolving the problem."