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The Silver Lining to the DEA’s Rejection of Marijuana Re-Scheduling

Better data means better laws.

By Jared Keller


(Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

The push to legalize marijuana across the United States just suffered a major blow. On Wednesday, the Drug Enforcement Administration rejected the bid of two Democratic governors to re-schedule marijuana under federal drug control laws, NPR reports. The drug currently has Schedule I designation under the Controlled Substances Act, meaning it’s considered to be as dangerous as substances like LSD, meth, and heroin. DEA chief Chuck Rosenberg told the media that the conclusion was rooted in the Food and Drug Administration’s own judgment that marijuana has “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.”

“This decision isn’t based on danger,” Rosenberg told NPR. “This decision is based on whether marijuana, as determined by the FDA, is a safe and effective medicine, and it’s not.”

The DEA’s refusal to relegate the drug to a less severe classification no doubt comes as a sting to marijuana advocates, but there is at least a silver lining to Wednesday’s announcement: Another one of the federal government’s major roadblocks to legalization is about to go up in smoke.

Additional research may actually hasten the gradual, methodical legalization of marijuana.

On the same day as the DEA’s announcement, the New York Timesnoted that the Obama administration intends to authorize several scientific institutions, mostly research universities, to grow marijuana for use in medical studies. Government officials told the Times that, while the University of Mississippi was for years the only university permitted to grow the drug, the DEA will soon permit new institutions to examine the medical applications — and health effects — of the drug.

There’s an immediate upside to this change in policy. With medical marijuana legal in half of the U.S. for those suffering from major ailments, researchers can further divine the legitimate curative properties of the drug. As the Brookings Institution’s’ John Hudak told the Times: “It will create a supply of research-grade marijuana that is diverse, but more importantly, it will be competitive and you will have growers motivated to meet the demand of researchers.” Here’s more from Hudak on the consequences of the rule change for medical marijuana research:

Researchers often had difficulty getting some kinds of marijuana, including ones with large amounts of THC, the main ingredient in the drug that gets people high. Under the University of Mississippi monopoly, Mr. Hudak of Brookings said: “If you were a researcher who thought a product with high THC would help someone with a painful cancer, you were out of luck. You couldn’t access high THC marijuana in the same way you could buy it in a market in Colorado,” where it is legal.

More clinical research on the effects of marijuana is inherently a good thing, and prohibitions on research are essentially epistemic roadblocks to legalization: Without new and complete information, lawmakers and law enforcement officials can’t effectively craft new policy that reflects the relative harm of psychoactive substances in the U.S. Consider, as a comparable example, the Dickey Amendment, which prohibits the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from performing clinical studies related to the health effects of gun violence. Whether it’s pot or guns, how can members of Congress effectively protect and serve their constituents when, thanks to an obstruction to the data-gathering process, they can’t even gather facts around the issue?

The DEA seems receptive to potentially re-considering the drug’s scheduling should new scientific research emerge from clinical trials. “As long as folks abide by the rules, and we’re going to regulate that, we want to expand the availability, the variety, the type of marijuana available to legitimate researchers,” Rosenberg told NPR. “If our understanding of the science changes, that could very well drive a new decision.”

If past research is any indication, additional research may actually hasten the gradual, methodical legalization of marijuana. It isn’t just that marijuana doesn’t actually lead to any major cognitive decline, or that legalization isn’t inherently tied to an uptick of “reefer madness”-style acts of vandalism and hooliganism, or that it isn’t actually much of a “gateway drug”; studies have, in fact, shown that marijuana can buffer social exhaustion, treat chronic pain,mitigate the effects of Parkinson’s,alleviate the torment of post-traumatic stress disorder, and treat a whole host of health issues ranging from chronic diseases to opioid addiction.

If the DEA plans on remaining obstinate when it comes to lifting the country’s national prohibition on medical and recreational marijuana, it’s only a matter of time before this increase in scientific research demystifies the potential public-health applications of the disease. And as much as lawmakers and law enforcement agents may try, they can’t argue with science.