On August 11, 2016, the widely anticipated Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) announcement on federal cannabis policy yielded fairly anticlimactic results. According to the statement, the federal agency denied two petitions to reschedule cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) conducted a scientific and medical evaluation that deemed cannabis “does not meet the criteria for currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, there is a lack of accepted safety for its use under medical supervision, and it has a high potential for abuse.” The announcement reiterates the agency’s previous statements on the matter, stating that they believe clinical trials under the investigational new drug (IND) applications and the drug approval process are how the FDA can assess the safety and effectiveness of cannabis-derived medicine.
This avenue for bringing a cannabis-based drug to market is extraordinarily cost-prohibitive, allowing only pharmaceutical companies with deep coffers in the space. The DEA did however make one announcement in the statement that has the potential to lift many barriers to researching the plant’s medical value. The policy change allows more institutions to grow cannabis for research, which was previously allowed only at the University of Mississippi under a contract with NIDA. This is a very significant policy change that could be viewed as a step in the right direction. There is plenty of research currently that proves cannabis’ medical value and its safety and efficacy, but allowing more research opportunities signals that the DEA could be open to revisiting a rescheduling recommendation in the future.
One can speculate endlessly about when the DEA may reschedule cannabis, but in reality, no one knows when that might happen, no one knows what a new administration would do, if Congress would act on it or if the courts would. It seems even the FDA and DEA are sitting on their hands as the federal government does what they do best– inaction.
However, one important ruling in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit highlights the baby steps taken toward some form of federal acceptance of legal cannabis. The court ruled that the Department of Justice couldn’t prosecute individuals in states where cannabis is legal. More specifically, the court ruling “prohibits the Department of Justice from spending funds to prevent states’ implementation of their medical marijuana laws.” The ruling basically reaffirms the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, which states that the DOJ cannot interfere with states where cannabis is legal, but this time also for those individuals complying with state law.
The DEA’s inaction on rescheduling cannabis should not be perceived as a loss to the legalization movement, rather as an upholding of the asinine status quo. Policy change in the United States is an arduous and very slow process. These things take time. One can look to the same-sex marriage movement and find striking similarities to the cannabis legalization movement. For example, Massachusetts and California were some of the first states to introduce legislation legalizing same-sex marriage and are also some of the first states that have introduced legislation legalizing cannabis. These states that are typically drivers of national policy have opportunities to pass important ballot initiatives this November that could have ripple effects throughout the country. Five states have ballot initiatives for recreational legalization and potentially up to eight states with initiatives for medical legalization, all being voted on this November.
What can the average citizen do to help with progress in cannabis legalization? For starters, you can vote. If you live in a state that has a ballot initiative for legalizing cannabis, show up at the polls and make your voice heard. If you live in a state where no such ballot initiative exists, you can still take action to get cannabis legalized. You can sign this petition or write your member of Congress to support the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States (CARERS) Act (S. 683). The CARERS Act, among many other important changes, would most notably reschedule cannabis to Schedule II.
So not all is lost with the DEA’s inaction. As more states legalize cannabis, we are seeing a rising tide lift all boats.