By Sam Mendez, Executive Director of the Cannabis Law and Policy Project
Probably not. Why? Because it would be a momentous change, and it is unprecedented. Many attitudes have changed towards marijuana, including those in power, but has the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) changed it’s tune?
But it is possible, and the very fact that the DEA said it would consider the question in a memo to lawmakers is significant. Furthermore, the political climate of 2016 might be the time for change. The DEA has not considered a petition to reschedule marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) since 2011, when it denied a petition filed by medical marijuana advocates nine years prior. The DEA also considered petitions in 2001 and 2006, which were also denied.
Marijuana is currently a Schedule I narcotic under the CSA, which means that by law it has “no medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Schedule 1 drugs are “the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence.” Other Schedule I drugs include LSD and heroin (full list here). By comparison, Schedule II contains drugs that by law have a high potential for abuse, but have accepted medical uses. This includes cocaine, methamphetamine, and numerous opioids (such as oxycodone and fentanyl), the latter being painkillers that have killed over 165,000 people since 1999 and is the subject of the current opioid epidemic in the United States.
The memo itself is intriguing as it provides clear data on current policies around marijuana research done at the federal level, or lack thereof. Since 2010, marijuana was sent by the Federal government to a mere 8 or 9 researchers each year (though 2014 had 12 researchers), which is surprising given all the clamor around marijuana’s potential medical benefits and legal marijuana’s economic value, which was $5.4 billion in 2015 and is expected to be over $20 billion by 2020. So why aren’t there more federally registered researchers?
According to the Washington Post, the application process is onerous. The Post writes:
[Brookings Institution’s John Hudak] said the small number of researchers working with marijuana in any given year is less a function of the government turning down applications, and more a function of an onerous, convoluted application process — one that requires approval from multiple government agencies and deters academics from even pursuing this type of research. “People just aren’t applying because of all the headaches involved,” he said. “It’s a huge disincentive for the academic community.”
The memo is also intriguing in that it clearly spells out this application process, which does indeed appear rather difficult. It would be interesting to see what one must do to research a Schedule II substance, and whether the processes are at all similar. One can presume that rescheduling marijuana to Schedule II would like simplify the application process, and would likely lead to hundreds or even thousands of doctors and scientists to research marijuana legally (under federal law), rather than the very few that do so today.
The people and institutions calling for more medical marijuana research is growing, including the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Calls for more research from these organizations, the growing number of lawmakers (some of whom prompted the DEA’s memo in the first place), and of course marijuana stakeholders themselves is expanding and becoming more mainstream. So perhaps this time it’s different.
This is not 2001, 2006, or 2011. Marijuana is now allowed for medicinal purposes in 23 states, for recreational states in 4, and these numbers will very likely grow this election year. Washington and Colorado legalized it for recreational purposes nearly 4 years ago, and chaos or tragedy has not ensued. So while the DEA has long been steadfast in keeping marijuana a Schedule I drug for 45 years, 2016 could be the year.