Marijuana Legalization Struggles: The Ridiculous Rule That's Preventing It From Happening


In what feels like an all-too-familiar outcome, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled this Tuesday that marijuana will continue to be recognized as a Schedule I drug, meaning highly dangerous and with no accepted medical uses, following a decade-long struggle to reclassify it. The court ruled that the Drug Enforcement Administration was justified in denying the initial petition for rescheduling.

The DEA’s reasoning? There’s insufficient research to merit approval by the Food and Drug Administration, a position that places marijuana policy reform in what Drug Policy Alliance senior staff attorney Todd Tamar is aptly calling “a Catch-22.”

“The DEA is saying that marijuana needs FDA approval to be removed from Schedule I,” she said, “but at the same time they are obstructing that very research.”

The petition, filed by Americans for Safe Access (ASA) and other advocacy groups back in 2002, was rejected by the DEA in 2011, nine years after the original filing. The DEA maintained that marijuana had not been sufficiently established as medically effective in “well-controlled, well-designed, well-conducted and well-documented scientific studies” — a statement backed by a 2006 report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Joe Elford, chief counsel for ASA, questioned the DEA’s meaning of the word “well,” affirming that the DEA has overlooked a “mountain of well-documented studies” that prove marijuana’s medicinal merits.

“The Court has unfortunately agreed with the Obama Administration's unreasonably raised bar on what qualifies as an 'adequate and well-controlled' study,” Elford commented, “thereby continuing their game of ‘Gotcha.’”

Following the 2011 rejection, the ASA pioneered the legal coalition to sue the DEA, asserting their position as “arbitrary and capricious.” In the end, it was that legal language which received the most questioning from the court, which attested that the DEA provided a sound argument and that, although there exists medical research widely pointing to marijuana’s medicinal properties, there was no legal merit in the appeal itself.

Elford argued the suit’s standing in court by citing the case of Michael Krawitz, a U.S. veteran who was denied services by the Veterans Administration due to his need for medical marijuana, a policy directly influenced by the drug’s Schedule I status. Judge Harry Edwards, who wrote the final ruling for the appeal, questioned the efficacy of rescheduling marijuana in relation to Krawitz’s, since reschedule wouldn’t necessarily affect its legality by state. This, once again, highlights the legal vicious circle that systematically limits marijuana from decriminalization. Judge Edwards states that marijuana cannot be rescheduled because doing so won’t ultimately affect its legal standing in a given state, but, at the same time, states are hesitant to seriously tackle the legality debate because of its current federal scheduling.

Another cog in the wheel is the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), an organization that holds the national monopoly on DEA-approved marijuana. The NIDA seems non-biased enough; except for statements by its spokeswoman Shirley Simson declaring that “[the NIDA’s] focus is primarily on the negative consequences of marijuana use.” She continued, “We generally do not fund research focused on the potential medical effects of marijuana.” With such explicit disdain for marijuana, researchers stand little to no chance at obtaining much objectivity in their studies.

Meanwhile, if it’s LSD, ecstasy, or heroin that needs researching, scientists have a free market riddled with different suppliers, all provided as options by the DEA, according to Rick Doblin, founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS).

In 2007, DEA Administrative Law Judge Mary Ellen Blittner ruled that private growing of marijuana for research was a matter of public interest. Michelle Leonhart, administrator for the DEA, rejected the ruling, citing (as you most probably guessed) research done by the NIDA and HHA.

With all odds almost methodically placed against comprehensible marijuana research, advocates’ efforts continue, according to ASA executive director Steph Sherer. "We're disappointed, but not surprised," she said. “… we are also turning our attention to Congress. It is time we had a conversation about marijuana at the federal level.”

But the question remains, is the federal government capable or even willing to have that conversation? Is there a way out of the vicious circle?