The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) ruled on Friday that marijuana has “no accepted medical use” and should therefore remain illegal under federal law — regardless of conflicting state legislation allowing medical marijuana and despite hundreds of studies and centuries of medical practice attesting to the drug’s benefits.
The judgment came in response to a 2002 petition by supporters of medical marijuana, which called on the government to reclassify cannabis, which is currently a Schedule I drug — like heroin, illegal for all uses — and to place it in Schedule III, IV or V, which would allow for common medical uses.
The DEA ruled that marijuana has “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States,” has a “high potential for abuse,” and “lacks an acceptable level of safety for use even under medical supervision.”
Not only does this decision conflict with state laws, however, it also conflicts with a 1999 report by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), the branch of the National Academy of Sciences charged with answering complex medical questions for Congress. Way back in 1999, the IOM said:
Scientific data indicate the potential therapeutic value of cannabinoid drugs, primarily THC, for pain relief, control of nausea and vomiting, and appetite stimulation; smoked marijuana, however, is a crude THC delivery system that also delivers harmful substances.
Despite the issue of smoking marijuana, the IOM said that medical use of the drug is acceptable when other alternatives have failed.
In addition, in 2006 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an investigational new drug application, or IND — which grants permission to study a drug with the goal of approving it for marketing if it is safe and effective — for Sativex, an inhalable marijuana-derived drug, which includes both THC and CBD, the main active components of cannabis. So, while one federal agency says the drug is too risky for use even under medical supervision, another is studying it for possible approval for marketing.
The synthetic marijuana-based drugs nabilone and dronabinol (both used to treat nausea and vomiting) are already approved in the U.S. and have been placed in Schedules II and III, respectively. Schedule II includes drugs with high abuse potential like Oxycontin, while Schedule III includes milder painkillers like codeine combined with Tylenol.
Since the IOM report was released more than a decade ago, the evidence for the medical benefits of marijuana and related drugs has continued to increase. In the last three years alone, cannabinoids have been found to help kill breast cancer cells, fight liver cancer, reduce inflammation, have antipsychotic effects and even potentially help stave off the development of Alzheimer’s disease and reduce progression of Huntington’s disease.
Further, a 2011 review of the effectiveness of cannabinoids for non-cancer pain found “no significant adverse effects” and “significant” analgesic effects.
Although the DEA judgment sounds like a setback for medical marijuana advocates, in one important sense it is an advance. The government had long delayed making a judgment on the petition, but now that it has, it makes it possible for advocates to appeal it in federal court. Now, that process can be set in motion.
It’s worth noting, though, that this isn’t the first time a petition to reclassify marijuana has been filed and rejected. The Los Angeles Times reported:
The first was filed in 1972 and denied 17 years later. The second was filed in 1995 and denied six years later. Both decisions were appealed, but the courts sided with the federal government.
Still, if an appeals judgment were based on scientific evidence, rather than political considerations this time around, it’s easy to imagine a very different outcome.