Editorial: Feds should declassify cannabis for research

  • by BAR Editorial Board
  • Wednesday March 6, 2024
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The federal Drug Enforcement Administration is reportedly studying whether to reclassify cannabis off of its Schedule I list. Photo: Sari Staver<br>
The federal Drug Enforcement Administration is reportedly studying whether to reclassify cannabis off of its Schedule I list. Photo: Sari Staver

Earlier this year, it was reported that newly disclosed documents reveal that federal scientists recommend easing restrictions on cannabis, believing that the drug may have medical benefits. This is likely not news to many in the LGBTQ community, who were on the frontlines of California's push to allow medicinal marijuana back in 1996 with the passage of the Compassionate Use Act (Proposition 215). And while the Golden State has since then also legalized recreational use of the drug, cannabis remains stubbornly classified as a Schedule I narcotic by the federal government — the same level as heroin.

It's time that the federal government declassify cannabis for medical research and take it off the Schedule I list.

In reporting on the 250-page scientific review, which was provided to Texas attorney Matthew Zorn after he sued the federal Department of Health and Human Services for it, the New York Times noted that Schedule I drugs are those that have been found to have no medical use and a high potential for abuse. Zorn's online publication of the report would seem to indicate that for cannabis, scientists believe there may indeed be medical uses.

"The documents show that scientists at the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institute on Drug Abuse have recommended that the Drug Enforcement Administration make marijuana a Schedule III drug, alongside the likes of ketamine and testosterone, which are available by prescription," the Times reported. "The review by federal scientists found that even though marijuana is the most frequently abused illicit drug, 'it does not produce serious outcomes compared to drugs in Schedules I or II.'"

"Marijuana abuse does lead to physical dependence, the analysis noted, and some people develop a psychological dependence. But the likelihood of serious outcomes is low,' the review concluded," the Times reported.

Last August, the FDA had advised the DEA to recategorize cannabis, according to Bloomberg News. The Times reported that the DEA is expected to announce its decision soon, which would be subject to public comment and debate.

Entering that debate is California Attorney General Rob Bonta, who recently joined the attorneys general of 11 other states in support of the federal government's efforts to evaluate and reschedule cannabis to allow for federal recognition of its medical and research value.

"Dozens of states have now either legalized cannabis or allowed for its medical use," Bonta stated in a news release announcing he had signed on to the letter. "It is high time the federal government reschedule this controlled substance to allow for medical use, open avenues for research opportunities, and provide legitimate businesses with recognition by the IRS."

Indeed. The review stated that there is some "scientific support" for therapeutic uses of marijuana, including treatment of anorexia, pain, and nausea and vomiting related to chemotherapy, according to the Times article.

Bonta stated that the federal government's current classification "considers cannabis as equally dangerous and addictive as heroin or ecstasy; this is simply not the reality." He also pointed out that the Schedule I classification makes it nearly impossible for scientists to conduct research.

Additionally, Bonta and the other AGs stated that reclassification would lower the tax burden for legitimate cannabis and cannabis-related businesses by authorizing them to take IRS deductions; provide cannabis users with fewer barriers to obtain public housing, immigrant and nonimmigrant visas, and legal possession of firearms; and supply states with legal cannabis markets to better help businesses and protect public safety by disincentivizing the illicit cannabis market.

Not surprisingly, the other AGs who signed the letter hail from blue states: Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Oregon, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Nevada, and Rhode Island. But it's important to note that medicinal and/or recreational use of cannabis is allowed in many red states, including Ohio, where voters approved recreational use last year. All told, more than half of Americans now live in states where marijuana is legal, according to a map by Axios.

Bonta and the other AGs are correct. The cannabis black market is thriving, as multiple outlets have reported for the last couple of years. CalMatters published a guest commentary piece last December by Tiffany Devitt, a board member of the California Cannabis Industry Association. She noted that the reasons the black market is booming are excessive taxes and local control on legal cannabis dispensaries. Legal sales have been on a two-year slide, she wrote, leaving potential investors looking at other locations.

"Proposition 64, the 2016 initiative to legalize cannabis, began with the statement: 'It is the intent of the People ... to take marijuana production and sales out of the hands of the illegal market ... to tax the growth and sale of marijuana in a way that drives out the illicit market ...,'" Devitt noted.

The high taxes compound the supply chain, resulting in product that can be 50% or more of the original price, Devitt stated. Cannabis retail bans in parts of the state have also affected the issue. "By allowing municipalities to opt-out of legalization, the state has essentially ceded two-thirds of the market to criminals," she wrote. "In these dry zones, unregulated, untaxed, and untested cannabis is king, and consumers are still partying like it's 1999."

Because of all this, there are many reasons to support the DEA reclassifying cannabis off of Schedule I. Research into potential medical benefits is crucial, but so are these other issues that are affecting states that have legalized cannabis for recreational use. The DEA should move ahead with its process and unveil a proposal for public comment that moves cannabis to a lesser tier on the agency's list.

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