The use of marijuana for medical purposes is now legal in 25 states and, as of this writing, two additional states (Arkansas and Florida) have pending legislation or ballot measures to legalize medical marijuana.1
Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Colorado and the District of Columbia have also legalized recreational use of marijuana for adults, while 16 states have decriminalized certain marijuana possession offenses.2
According to estimates, between 85 and 95 percent of Americans are in favor of medical cannabis, and nearly 60 percent support complete legalization of marijuana. And, contrary to what you might think, doctors overwhelmingly agree.
A 2013 survey found a majority of physicians – 76 percent – approve of the use of medical marijuana.3 CNN’s chief medical correspondent and neurosurgeon Sanjay Gupta also made a highly publicized reversal on his marijuana stance after the production of his two-part series “Weed,” which aired in 2014.4
Despite this trend, many families are still unable, legally or otherwise, to obtain this herbal treatment. Families with a sick child are being forced to split up, just so that one parent can live in a place where medical cannabis can be legally obtained in order to help their child.
A major part of the problem lies at the federal level, where marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance5 – a category reserved for the most addictive and dangerous of drugs, including heroin and LSD.
Marijuana Does Not Meet Criteria for Schedule 1 Controlled Substances
According to the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, Schedule 1 drugs are defined as those having a “high potential for abuse” and “no acceptable medical use in treatment.” Research to date shows that marijuana meets neither of these criteria. For example, studies have shown medical cannabis:
- Stimulates appetite in AIDS patients
- Reduces neuropathic pain and spasticity in patients with multiple sclerosis (MS)
- Treats chronic pain
- Reduces (and in some cases eliminates) epileptic seizures
- In Israel, doctors use marijuana to treat cancer, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, Tourette’s syndrome and many other conditions
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has spent the last five years deliberating whether it should reclassify marijuana to a Schedule 2 substance – a class that includes both cocaine and methamphetamines; dangerous drugs that nonetheless have some accepted medicinal use.
DEA Rejects Petition to Lower Classification of Marijuana
Earlier this month, the agency delivered its verdict: Marijuana will remain a Schedule 1 substance. As reported by Newsweek:6
“The decision is the DEA’s response to a 2011 petition by two former state governors who had urged federal agencies to reclassify marijuana as a drug with accepted medical uses.
In a letter to the petitioners, the DEA said it had asked the Department of Health and Human Services [HHS] for a scientific and medical evaluation of the issue.
‘HHS concluded that marijuana has a high potential for abuse, has no accepted medical use in the United States and lacks an acceptable level of safety for use even under medical supervision,’ the letter said.”
This really challenges logic on many fronts. For starters, in October 2003, the HHS actually obtained a patent for marijuana as a “neural protectant,” claiming it can protect your brain against stroke and trauma.7
How can the HHS own a patent for the medical use of marijuana on the one hand, while concluding that “marijuana has no accepted medical use … and lacks an acceptable level of safety for use even under medical supervision” on the other?
DEA and HHS Should Be Abolished
With this decision, the DEA and HHS have completely lost all credibility, proving they will act AGAINST the public good if it means protecting corporate interests. The hypocrisy is so blatant it’s infuriating.
Because who actually benefits from marijuana being a banned? Primarily drug companies, privatized prisons – which make millions of dollars from incarcerating non-violent marijuana users – and law enforcement, including police and prison guard unions.8,9
In 2011 alone, 850,000 people in the U.S. were arrested for marijuana-related crimes.10 As noted by Opensecrets.org:11
“The revenue from waging the war on drugs has become a significant source of financial support for local law enforcement.
Federal and state funding of the drug war – as well as the property police forces seize as a part of drug raids – have become significant financial supplements to local forces’ budgets …
One of the largest for-profit prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America, even stated in a regulatory filing that keeping the drug war alive is essential to its success as a business:
‘[A]ny changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances … could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.’”
Current Scheduling of Marijuana Ignores Scientific Evidence
As noted by Carl L. Hart, Ph.D.,12 a researcher of behavioral and neuropharmacological effects of psychoactive drugs and the department chair of the psychology department at Columbia University:13
“[T]herapeutic benefits … have compelled citizens to vote repeatedly over the past two decades to legalize medical marijuana at the state level … And yet Federal law still technically forbids the use of medical marijuana …
As a scientist and educator, I am worried that we have lost credibility … with those seeking treatments for a variety of medical conditions because our current scheduling of marijuana ignores the scientific and medical evidence.
When we make decisions based on factors other than the available empirical evidence, we are less than objective, which means we are no longer acting as scientists.”
Hart also points out that the glaring inconsistencies between the Federal law and so many other state initiatives – not to mention mounting scientific evidence demonstrating the medical benefits of cannabis – really undermines peoples’ trust in federal agencies.
I strongly concur, especially as it relates to the DEA, which really seems more interested in protecting the profits of prisons and drug companies than anything else.
DEA Vows to Make Marijuana Research Easier
In response to rising demand from scientists, the DEA has agreed to loosen restrictions around the growing of marijuana for research purposes. In April 2014, 161 scientists were registered to study marijuana. As of March 2016, there were 244.
At present, the University of Mississippi is the only federally legal grower of cannabis, and researchers who want to study the herb must jump through a number of bureaucratic hoops in order to receive approval from the HHS, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the DEA.
The DEA has agreed to raise the amount of marijuana it will allow to be grown for research purposes. It will also allow other facilities to grow marijuana for research. Many other time-consuming and costly hurdles will remain, however.14,15
Dr. Orrin Devinsky, a neurologist at New York University Langone Medical Center, has pushed for looser restrictions on marijuana research. He told STAT News:16
“The main holdup for researchers is the scheduling, not the ability to obtain the product, which is a secondary issue. This change is a positive one, but will do relatively little to advance our scientific understanding.”
Indeed, while all Schedule 1 drugs must gain FDA approval, researchers studying marijuana must undergo additional review processes by both the HHS and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) that no other drug must go through.17
Moreover, there’s no deadline for the HHS/NIDA review, and no formal appeals process should the study be rejected. As a result, marijuana research is easily stifled, delayed or prevented altogether.
Synthetic Pot Drugs Approved While Marijuana Remains Banned
Ironically, while acting DEA chief Chuck Rosenberg states that “no drug product made from marijuana has yet been shown to be safe and effective,” he admits that two synthetic tetrahydrocannabinols (THC) medicines Marinol and Cesamer – have recently received FDA approval for sale as, you guessed it, patented drugs.
Rosenberg took over as acting director of the DEA in May 2015, taking over the role after scandals drove out Michele Leonhart.18Leonhart was harshly criticized for opposing the legalization of marijuana, yet Rosenberg is following in the exact same footsteps.19
Earlier this year, Rosenberg even referred to the concept of medical marijuana as “a joke.” Somehow, I don’t think the manufacturers of these synthetic THC drugs would agree with him. In fact, the very approval of these drugs should be sufficient to prove marijuana has medical applications. Why else would they be approved for the treatment of nausea? These synthetic THC drugs are listed as Schedule 3 and 2 respectively, meaning they have acknowledged medicinal value.
THC is a subclass of cannabinoids, the general category of active chemical compounds found in marijuana. Cannabidiols (CBD) is another subclass.20 Cannabinoids produce biological effects because, just like opiates interacting with your opiate receptors, cannabinoids interact with specific receptors located in your cell membranes.
The therapeutic and psychoactive properties of marijuana occur when particular cannabinoids activate their associated receptors, and the effects depend on the areas of your body and brain in which they interact. Some cannabinoids are psychoactive, whereas others are not. THC is the most psychoactive, the one that produces the “high” associated with smoking pot.
Why Are DEA and HHS Ignoring Human Endocannabinoid System?
Cannabinoid receptors can be found on cell membranes throughout your body – in fact, scientists now believe they may represent the most widespread receptor system in the human body.21 Two receptor types have been identified:
- CB1: Cannabinoid receptors that are extremely prolific in your brain (excluding your brain stem), but also present in your heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, pancreas and other parts of your body
- CB2: Cannabinoid receptors primarily found in your immune system
Your endocannabinoid system is thought to help regulate nearly every physiological process and plays an important role in maintaining homeostasis, and yet this is not taught in medical school. We’ve shared this important system with all vertebrate species and even sea squirts for more than 600 million years. Science to date suggests that your endocannabinoid system is integral to the following biological processes, and chances are we’ve barely scratched the surface.22
Immune function, Inflammation (especially tamping it down), Energy intake and storage
Appetite control and cravings, Nutrient transport, Cellular communication
Emotional balance, Reproduction, Pain sensation
Sleep, Bone growth, Memory
Why Big Pharma Hates Pot
Were marijuana decriminalized nationwide, the drug industry clearly would take a big hit. Not only would people have access to a far less expensive, more effective and natural version of the synthetic CBD and THC drugs currently selling at a premium, many would also turn to marijuana to relieve their aches, pains, nausea, sleep problems, anxiety, depression and more.
The sad fact is that drug companies are fighting to shut down the legalization of marijuana in order to maintain their drug monopoly. For starters, the opioid painkiller market would be severely threatened by marijuana legalization.
Narcotic painkillers have been identified as the new gateway drug to heroin, and even government officials have publicly acknowledged that these drugs have become the No. 1 drug problem in the U.S., addicting and killing people in record numbers. More than 28,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses in 2014 – more deaths than any other year on record according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).23
The number includes deaths from both heroin and prescription opioid pain relievers, but the latter accounted for at least half. Yet little is being done to curb their use. Instead, agencies like the DEA, FDA and HHS are fighting against marijuana! It’s illogical at best. Then again, profit has nothing to do with logic, and this is how you know that many federal agencies have ceased working for the public good.
Why Won’t Senate Release Its Opioid Report?
In 2012, as opioid overdoses continued to rise, two senators – Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) – began an investigation into financial ties between the drugs’ makers and the medical organizations setting guidelines on opioid use. The targets of the investigation were Purdue Pharma (maker of Oxycontin), Endo International plc (Percocet) and Johnson & Johnson (Duragesic) along with five organizations, including the Center for Practical Bioethics and the American Pain Foundation (APF).
Senate staffers spent a year working on the investigation and subsequent report, but its results have not been made public (the report is sealed in the Senate Committee on Finance’s office).24 Due to changes in position, it’s now Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), current chair of the Senate Committee on Finance, and Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who stand to get the opioid report released.
In 2015, public health advocates requested the release of the findings, noting that many of those targeted by the report continue to “promote aggressive opioid use and continue to block federal and state interventions that could reduce overprescribing.” Still, the report remains sealed. The question is why. What did they find that they don’t want anyone to know?
Drug Companies Downplay Addictive Nature of Opioids
The attorney general of New Hampshire, Joseph Foster, is trying to prove five drug companies – Actavis, Endo, Janssen, Teva and Purdue Pharma – broke the law when they marketed their opioid painkillers. He believes false marketing has contributed to rising abuse of illicit drugs like heroin. According to Foster, these companies are stifling his investigation and refusing to cooperate with the state’s attorneys. In a recent NPR program, Foster said:25
“If they are continuing to mislead the public, we’re going to continue to improperly create addicts in our state. Four out of 5 folks who turned to heroin were addicted to prescription opiates first.”
Chicago, two California counties and Mississippi have already filed lawsuits against one or more of the same companies currently under investigation in New Hampshire. James Boffetti, New Hampshire’s lead attorney on the case told NPR:
“We’re in a mess. You know, we have a country that’s addicted to opioids that move to heroin. So we need to solve this problem, and part of it is we need to figure out what the drug companies did, if anything, to create this problem … [But] I’ve yet to receive one piece of paper from any of these drug companies. And you’ve got to ask yourself, why? Why are they fighting so hard?”
DEA Has Impeded and Rejected Science for 40 Years
Like the drug industry, the DEA has spent decades fighting AGAINST that which is right. As noted by Drugpolicy.org:26 “The DEA has existed for more than 40 years but little attention has been given to the role the agency has played in fueling mass incarceration, racial disparities, the surveillance state and other drug war problems.” It goes into further detail in its report, “The DEA: Four Decades of Impeding and Rejecting Science.”27 The report highlights the following five case studies:
- DEA Obstructs Marijuana Rescheduling, Part One 1973-1994
- DEA Overrules Administrative Law Judge to Classify MDMA (synthetic cannabinoids) as Schedule I, 1985
- DEA Obstructs Marijuana Rescheduling: Part Two, 1995-2001
- DEA Overrules Administrative Law Judge to Protect Federal Monopoly on Marijuana for Research, 2001-2013
- DEA Obstructs Marijuana Rescheduling: Part Three, 2002-2013
According to the report, “These case studies reveal a number of DEA practices that work to maintain the existing, scientifically unsupported drug scheduling system and to obstruct research that might alter current drug schedules.” Failing to act in a timely fashion, overruling DEA administrative law judges and creating regulatory Catch-22s are among the agency’s most common tactics.
Unfortunately, with its recent decision to reject the petition to reclassify marijuana, it’s apparent that the agency is still playing the same old game. Meanwhile, families and individual lives continue to be destroyed by a nonsensical drug policy that targets marijuana users – even when the herb is used to treat terminal illness for which there are few other safe options.
It’s hard to understand how federal policy makers can sacrifice the lives of so many, including children, to protect corporate profit centers. But that’s what they’re doing.