photo by Flickr user Mark
The evidence is conclusive: Marijuana causes blindness. At least if you work at the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Responding to a pair of petitions by two Democratic governors and a nurse practitioner, the DEA flatly declined to change how marijuana is classified under federal drug control laws. The petitioners asked that it be moved out of Schedule I, a classification for drugs that come with a high potential for abuse and no accepted clinical application. This places marijuana in the company of substances like heroin and LSD, and means it is a more highly regulated substance than cocaine.
In a letter explaining the agency’s position, DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg conceded that marijuana is less dangerous than some of the substances in less regulated schedules. “That strikes some people as odd, but the criteria for inclusion in Schedule I is not relative danger,” Rosenberg wrote. “It is best not to think of drug scheduling as an escalating ‘danger’ scale.” The DEA claims marijuana needs to retain its current status because it supposedly lacks any accepted medical use in the United States.
Virtually alone among the U.S. population, DEA officials somehow cannot see all the thousands of people using marijuana across country to deal with extreme pain, epilepsy and glaucoma, among other conditions. Federal drug enforcers have completely missed the patients in 25 states, not to mention those in their own backyard in the District of Columbia, participating in their states’ medical marijuana and cannabis programs. No matter how hard it looks, the DEA just can’t find any acceptable medical use.
The simple reason for this bureaucratic astigmatism is that when you are a drug enforcer, every drug looks like an enforcement problem. Leaving the determination of a drug’s medical benefit to the DEA is like putting Kanye West in charge of handing out the Country Music Awards.
The DEA also ignores the fact that its decision ties the hands of scientists who might otherwise conduct the very research it says is necessary to reclassify the substance. Until this month, the University of Mississippi has been the only institution allowed to grow the plant for research, severely limiting availability. Even now that more institutions will be allowed to grow the plants, scientists must secure approvals from multiple agencies to conduct research on a Schedule I substance.
Despite these obstacles, the evidence the DEA claims not to have is out there. As Emily Willingham pointed out in an opinion column for Forbes, the Food and Drug Administration has already approved two cannabis-derived drugs and The National Cancer Institute notes potential applications for cannabis and derivative drugs in cancer therapies on its public website. But the DEA has created an effective Catch-22, in which it is waiting on the FDA to determine marijuana’s broad medical uses while making it difficult for anyone to conduct the sort of research it says it would require.
Congress has the power to amend the Controlled Substances Act outright, without waiting on the DEA. There are some proposals to legislate changes in how the government treats marijuana, but lawmakers disagree on how best to approach the problem. Meanwhile, the gap between state and federal treatment of marijuana continues to widen.
It is one of the spectacular failings of this administration that, under a president so determined to act by executive fiat, it has not reined in the federal drug enforcement apparatus when it comes to marijuana. It is indisputable that cannabis has taken many thousands of lives – but virtually all of them have been lost as a consequence of the substance’s illegal trade and not its use.
The fact that the president who traded the “choom wagon” for Air Force One has not put a stop to this nonsense is a testament to political calculation. The president has said he would let science, rather than ideology, dictate drug policy, but in the end he has chosen to save his political capital to deploy elsewhere. It just was not worth his while to stand up to the drug enforcement lobby within his own executive branch.