The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration on Thursday rejected requests to reclassify marijuana from its current status as a dangerous drug, though it will allow expanded production to support medical research.
The agency said it consulted with the U.S. Health and Human Services Department before making its decision. The review came in response to requests from the governors of Rhode Island and Washington, who asked the federal government to remove cannabis from its list of Schedule I substances.
That category of drugs, which includes heroin, is defined as substances that have a “high potential for abuse” and “no currently accepted medical use.”
The DEA concluded that’s where marijuana, a drug used by one in 10 Oregonians, belongs.
The agency said cannabis “does not meet the criteria for currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States,” that there is a lack of “accepted safety for its use,” and it has “a high potential for abuse.”
The announcement disappointed cannabis legalization advocates in Oregon and nationwide who pressed the Obama administration to remove marijuana altogether from the federal government’s schedule of controlled substances.
U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, said he welcomes the policy shift that allows for increased medical research, but he slammed the federal government’s decision to maintain marijuana’s status as a Schedule I drug.
“This decision doesn’t go far enough and is further evidence that the DEA doesn’t get it,” said Blumenauer, who has been an outspoken proponent of reforming federal marijuana policy.
Retaining the drug’s status, he said in a statement, “continues an outdated, failed approach — leaving patients and marijuana businesses trapped between state and federal laws.”
Thursday’s decision does nothing to address issues confronting marijuana businesses operating in states like Oregon and Washington where the drug is legal. Legal marijuana producers and retailers, for example, have trouble accessing banking services because of the federal prohibition on marijuana.
Oregon is among 25 states where marijuana is legal for medical or recreational use.
Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, called the decision “largely a political one and not a scientific one.”
“That the decision by the DEA fails to acknowledge the scientific evidence and the emerging public policy that is now in place in a majority of this country is simply an act of willful ignorance,” Armentano said.
Although the federal government decided to maintain marijuana prohibition, it also relaxed rules for producing cannabis for medical research. The government currently allows research on cannabis, but the approval process is especially complicated and involves marijuana produced under a contract with the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The product is cultivated at a government-run facility based at the University of Mississippi.
The DEA said marijuana producers who meet agency requirements may register with the agency to supply researchers, as well as “strictly commercial endeavors” that would allow for the development of pharmaceutical products.
The announcement makes clear that the agency will register a limited number of licenses to producers of research-grade cannabis.
Dr. Colin Roberts, a pediatric neurologist and director of the Doernbecher Childhood Epilepsy Program at OHSU, said the prospect of an expanded supply of cannabis is promising.
Roberts’ program is participating in several active clinical trials on pharmaceutical-grade cannabidiol produced by Insys, a pharmaceutical company. Cannabidiol, or CBD, is a component of the cannabis plant. Unlike tetrahydrocannabinol, known as THC, cannabidiol does not have psychoactive properties.
While the federal government’s announcement does little to ease the thicket of red tape for researchers, it could lead to a wider variety of strains and products for scientists to work with. He said it’s possible that OHSU may pursue an effort to produce cannabis for research.
“It depends on do we have enough people interested in doing the research with those products?” he said. “I know there is a lot of interest in the state because we have a lot of people who feel they can produce high quality products.
“Our ability to take those products from them and use them for for research — we can’t do that now,” he said.
Mowgli Holmes, a biologist whose Oregon company is focused on cannabis genomics, said the federal decision to increase sources of research-grade marijuana “is a pretty small bone to throw at us.”
Holmes served on a state task force that earlier this year recommended the creation of an independent marijuana institute to support and conduct world-class research into the drug’s medical and public health benefits.
He said the new stance does nothing to address the bureaucratic burdens facing researchers who want to investigate marijuana. And it doesn’t allow for agricultural research into the plant.
“All the basic agricultural research that needs to be done still can’t be done under any circumstances,” Holmes said.
— Noelle Crombie