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DEA's long-awaited rescheduling decision may be 'blessing in disguise' for reformers 

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click to enlarge It's possible the result still could be a happy ending. - SHUTTERSTOCK
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  • It's possible the result still could be a happy ending.

When the "first half of 2016" came and went without a marijuana rescheduling announcement, it became clear the Drug Enforcement Agency didn't feel overly obligated to meet its own self-imposed timeline.

But now the DEA has rejected two petitions — one from the governors of Rhode Island and Washington, one from a New Mexico resident — for the removal of cannabis from Schedule I under the Controlled Substances Act. The federal government will continue to consider cannabis as dangerous as heroin, though it will end the monopoly on research-grade cannabis production.

Details of the recommendations from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) can be found in the Federal Register, where the DEA posted acting administrator Chuck Rosenberg's written response. He addresses the eight factors behind a substance's scheduling: pharmacological effects; state of scientific knowledge; history; potential for abuse; significance of abuse; risk to public health; liability for dependence; and status as a "gateway drug."

In short, the DEA has reasserted marijuana has high potential for abuse, no accepted medical use and is classified appropriately. But the agency acknowledged the "cannabis catch-22": that marijuana is in Schedule I because there's not enough scientific research, but there's not enough scientific research because it's in Schedule I. This is where reformers were tossed a bone: More growers will now be authorized to supply research-grade cannabis to scientists itching to produce better evidence.

For decades, the DEA mandated any researcher must source cannabis from a NIDA-licensed grow; there's one in the nation, at the University of Mississippi. That meant insufficient supply, inadequate strain diversity, botched processing, slow delivery and high cost. That blocked studies on the plant's medical benefit.

This news isn't clearly good or bad for state-legal patients, consumers, businesses, growers, regulators and government officials.

As John Hudak wrote for the Brookings Institute, the "move will certainly disappoint many in the marijuana reform community who hoped that DEA would change marijuana's status," but rescheduling would've been "largely symbolic" — neither the silver bullet nor the death sentence for legal cannabis.

According to Hudak's analysis, the decision isn't entirely tone-deaf. "DEA is hyper-aware of [...] societal changes," he wrote, noting that "between the Cole Memos creating a legal space in which cannabis enterprises can operate, the removal of the Public Health Service's duplicative review of marijuana research proposals, and the Treasury Department's efforts to encourage banking access for the cannabis industry or the numerous proposals in Congress seeking reform, the times for marijuana are a-changin'."

Ultimately, the announcement amounts to a forward-looking punt.

"If marijuana had been rescheduled, a new administration could have been sworn in next January with the idea that the problems facing the marijuana industry and community were 'fixed' and that no further action need be taken," Hudak continued. "However, if come January a new president is sworn in who looks at the drug policy landscape and sees both a system in need of repair and a policy with reforms that can garner bipartisan, bicameral support in Congress, DEA's stubbornness on rescheduling may ultimately become reformers' blessing in disguise."

We know the next president should be somewhere on the cannabis-friendly end of the spectrum.

Green Party candidate Jill Stein has called for nationwide legalization, as has Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson, who was CEO of a medical marijuana business before the campaign. The Marijuana Policy Project endorsed Johnson, praising him for openly discussing his personal use of the federally illegal substance and becoming the highest-ranking public official to advocate for legalization as governor of New Mexico in 1999.

Donald Trump called for legalization of all drugs in the 1990s. But last year, when a Washington Post reporter asked him about marijuana, Trump replied, "I think that should be a state issue, state-by-state," before adding that "medical should happen — right? Don't we agree? I think so." He has also called Colorado's full legalization "a real problem."

Hillary Clinton has expressed support for rescheduling, leaving legal states alone and encouraging more medical research.

So the DEA's decision, though disappointing on its face, may well prove temporary after the November election — regardless of who wins.

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