Because We Say So

July 15, 2011 Current Commentary Comments Off
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Thousands of people in 16 U.S. states and in the District of Columbia take a prescribed drug that has no “currently accepted medical use,” according to a recent government ruling.

If the medication involved were a typical blood pressure pill or arthritis treatment, this sort of pronouncement would come from the Food and Drug Administration, which is charged with determining whether medications are safe and effective. But the drug is cannabis, and the ruling came from the Drug Enforcement Agency.

When Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, it listed marijuana as a Schedule I drug, a category that includes substances with a high potential for abuse and no medical applications. Since then, marijuana’s Schedule I status has been regularly contested by groups and by individuals. The recent DEA decision was in response to a petition originally filed around nine years ago. (Explaining the delay, Barbara Carreno, a spokeswoman for the DEA, told the Los Angeles Times, “The regulatory process is just a time-consuming one that usually takes years to go through.”) The classification is significant because Schedule I drugs, such as heroin, are illegal for all use.

The DEA defended marijuana’s current classification by citing a lack of scientific studies proving its medical utility. But, as critics of the decision have been quick to point out, one of the major reasons marijuana has not been studied more extensively is because of its Schedule I classification. For the medical community to establish “accepted” uses for a drug, doctors and scientists must be free to study it. Sometimes accepted uses arise out of doctors’ legal “off-label” prescription of various medications to treat conditions for which they have not been formally approved. Though some studies of marijuana’s medical benefits have been conducted — and most of them have shown promising results — the process remains tangled in red tape.

Of course, no one really expected the DEA to come down on the side of medicinal marijuana. As its name suggests, the Drug Enforcement Agency is in the business of enforcing laws, not investigating novel treatment options.

The DEA’s website contains plenty of pages explaining why marijuana is so bad. On one, it claims that marijuana is harmful because it “contains more than 400 chemicals, including most of the harmful substances found in tobacco smoke.” If harmful side effects disqualified pharmaceuticals from medical use, we would not see many of the warning-laden advertisements that populate prime-time network television.

On another page, the DEA says marijuana actually does have a medical use, but that the smoked form of the drug does not need to be legal because the active ingredient, THC, has already been isolated and replicated in the synthetic prescription drug Marinol. So, according to the DEA, marijuana needs to be kept away from people because it is harmful in the same ways as cigarettes — which are excluded from the Controlled Substances Act — but marijuana is also different because it is medically useful, while cigarettes are not.

Screwy logic, but that is not the DEA’s fault. It is not in the business of writing laws; it is in the business of enforcing them. Why ask cops to play doctor?

Now that DEA has issued its final ruling, proponents of medical marijuana can challenge the agency’s position in court. Previous challenges have failed, but they came before the widespread movement among states to authorize medical marijuana in spite of the federal law to the contrary.

There is reason to hope that the courts will rule differently this time. With all those doctors prescribing marijuana and all those people taking it, judges may finally be ready to throw out the government’s position: “Cannabis has no medical use because we say so.”


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