By KATE O’KEEFFE
Updated Aug. 11, 2016 5:26 p.m. ET in The Wall Street Journal
The Drug Enforcement Administration on Thursday rejected petitions to remove marijuana from its most highly restricted classification of drugs, which includes heroin and ecstasy, but announced a new policy to support expanded research into the substance.
Acting DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg said marijuana is “less dangerous” than some drugs in less-restrictive categories, let alone other drugs in the “Schedule I” classification. But he added that, following studies by the DEA and the Food and Drug Administration, he was bound by statute to leave the substance in that category. Schedule I is reserved for drugs that have a high potential for abuse with no offsetting, accepted medical use.
The decision was a setback for marijuana legalization advocates, who’d hoped the DEA would reclassify marijuana to a less-restrictive level. But the agency potentially paved the way for a future reconsideration by announcing a new policy aimed at increasing the supply of marijuana for research.
For nearly 50 years, a single grower has had a monopoly on producing marijuana used in studies in a system designed mainly to support noncommercial research.
Now officials will allow more people to grow marijuana “not only to supply federally-funded or other academic researchers, but also for strictly commercial endeavors funded by the private sector and aimed at drug product development,” the DEA said.
The move paves the way to enabling pharmaceutical firms to launch production in the U.S. should a marijuana-derived drug be proven to be safe and effective for medical use, according to the DEA.
Advocates of marijuana legalization such as Tom Angell, Chairman of Marijuana Majority, applauded the new research policy, which he said should increase the supply and diversity of marijuana available for research.
But he sharply criticized the decision not to reschedule the drug. “There are seriously ill people who are benefiting from medical marijuana right now, and the constant threat of DEA knocking down their door or sending their supplier to prison doesn’t do anything to bring these people much-needed relief,” Mr. Angell said.
Half the states and the District of Columbia now allow marijuana to be used for medical purposes, but the drug remains strictly illegal under U.S. law. The federal government has adopted a practice of not prosecuting those who use marijuana according to their home-state laws.
Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, where recreational marijuana use is legal, said the DEA was “keeping federal law behind the times.” The only good news in Thursday’s announcement, he said, is that with fewer restrictions, researchers may be able to find the evidence the government needs to accept marijuana’s potential medical benefits.
Marijuana’s growing acceptance on the state level has arguably reflected a cultural shift, but the DEA’s decision Thursday suggested that shift is not decisive, or at least not complete.
“Big Marijuana was counting on President Obama to reschedule or even deschedule marijuana in order to circumvent the FDA process to turn a quick profit on unregulated products,” said Kevin Sabet, President of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which opposes legalization. “But this decision means that medications based on marijuana will have to go through the same rigorous testing process as all of our other medications.”
The DEA, according to rules created by Congress, can only reschedule marijuana if it has scientific proof of its medical effectiveness. The regulator has also noted Congress’s ability to pass a law to reschedule marijuana.
Schedule II, for example, includes cocaine and the prescription painkillers oxycodone and fentanyl, which are considered medically beneficial despite their high potential for abuse. Drugs in Schedules III through V are also all considered to serve medical purposes and are ranked in order of descending potential for abuse.
The petitioners seeking the change were a New Mexico nurse, who contacted the DEA in 2009, and the governor’s offices in Washington and Rhode Island, which made their request in 2011. In his response Thursday, Mr. Rosenberg stressed the agency’s commitment to supporting research.
He said the DEA has never denied an application to use legally-produced marijuana in a legitimate study, adding that the total number of individuals and institutions registered with the DEA to research marijuana and related substances has more than doubled recently, from 161 in April 2014 to 354 currently.
“Some of the ongoing research includes studies of the effects of smoked marijuana on human subjects,” Mr. Rosenberg wrote. “Folks might be surprised to learn that we support this type of research. But, we do.”