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Here’s Why the DEA Will Never Reschedule Cannabis

August 11, 2016

“Marijuana in its natural form is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man.” — Hon. Francis Young (deceased), DEA Administrative Law Judge, 1988


After nearly a century of “reefer-madness”-inspired paternalistic federal obstructionism, the Drug Enforcement Agency’s announcement that it won’t reschedule cannabis should come as no surprise. Predictably, the agency announced plans on Thursday to make research easier by ending the federal government’s monopoly on research-grade marijuana production.

The DEA, Food & Drug Administration, and Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) — “The Triad” — acknowledge cannabis contains constituents that, when used independently, or synergistically, can provide significant therapeutic benefits. However, they contend that a plant-based medicine of variable chemical composition that can be smoked (but, doesn’t have to be), can’t be medicine. (Millions of patients and their physicians, of course, disagree.)

BREAKING: Outrage Follows DEA Refusal to Reschedule Cannabis

How can the DEA justify its decision?

The DEA can classify a drug Schedule I if it meets (any of) the following criteria:

  • No currently accepted medical use; 
  • Lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision; 
  • High abuse potential 

Common sense (and science) tell us none of these apply to cannabis. In fact, it wasn’t long ago — Sept. 6, 1988 — that one of the DEA’s own administrative judges concurred. In what should have been a landmark decision, the now deceased Hon. Francis Young, ruled (emphasis mine):

"[The evidence] clearly shows that marijuana has been accepted as capable of relieving the distress of great numbers of very ill people. … It would be unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious for DEA to continue to stand between those sufferers and the benefits of this substance.”

 Brookings Institute Report Denounces War on Drugs

Young continued, “The record here establishes conclusively that at least 'a respectable minority' of physicians has 'accepted' marijuana as having a 'medical use in treatment in the United States.' That the others may not, makes no difference. … Nothing more can reasonably be required.” 

The judge concluded that there’s “no lack of accepted safety for [the] use of [cannabis] under medical supervision and that it may lawfully be transferred from Schedule I to Schedule II."

After rejecting Young’s ruling, the DEA revised internal guidelines on what constitutes “accepted medical use,” implementing an eight-factor analysis.

What is “accepted medical use?”

The DEA narrowly defines “accepted medical use.” Among other requirements, the drug's chemistry must be known and reproducible, and have an “adequate” number of “gold standard,” human-controlled trials. 

“Gold standard” research doesn’t exist because, ipso facto, government policy obstructs research. It took years for the first-ever whole-plant cannabis study — Dr. Sue Sisley and the MAPS Foundation’s PTSD study — to get approved. 

(Notably, since 1999 the federal government has held a patent on cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuroprotectants, claiming, “cannabinoids [are] useful in the treatment…of a wide variety of oxidation associated diseases.”)

 How GW Pharma Could Use U.S. Patents to Shape the Future of Medical Cannabis

What is “accepted safety for use under medical supervision?” 

The DEA points to the fact there aren't any FDA-approved botanical cannabis products and thus no accepted safety standards. Big surprise! The government has long impeded research — a point they’ve (indirectly) acknowledged with today’s announcement.

What constitutes “high potential for abuse?”

The litmus test: Are people using the substance for non-medicinal purposes? News flash: Numerous scheduled drugs are diverted to non-medicinal use (see below). Notably, only 9 percent of people who try marijuana develop a use disorder. Alcohol clocks in at 15 percent, while nicotine takes the cake at 33 percent.

 Here’s Why Cannabis Legalization Doesn’t Lead to Higher Teen Use Rates

Technically, the risk for psychological and physical dependence should decrease as you work your way down the schedules. But, the government applies this rule haphazardly, with more dangerous drugs appearing on lower schedules

  • Opioids appear on four out of five schedules. From 1999 to 2014, more than 165,000 people died in the U.S. from overdoses related to prescription opioids. During the same period, there were no reported fatal overdoses from cannabis.
  • Schedule IV drugs, including Xanax, Soma, Klonopin, and Valium, were involved in 30 percent of fatal drug overdoses. To put that in perspective, at 3.07 deaths per 100,000 people, the rate of fatal benzodiazepine-related overdoses is 50 percent higher than the homicide rate of many large cities. (The eighth-largest city, San Diego, has a homicide rate of 2.4 / 100,000.)

And, I kid you not…

  • “Crack,” “Crank,” “Ice,” “Meth,” and “Speed” (they literally list those names) are technically Schedule II drugs. And LSD precursor and hallucinogenic — LSA — is Schedule III.

Further, federal officials don’t consider that by expanding access to cannabis, we can reduce abuse of more dangerous drugs like opioids and alcohol. States passing medical marijuana laws experienced a 25-percent drop in fatal opioid overdoses. Similarly, studies suggest that when states enact medical marijuana laws, they experience a significant decline in alcohol consumption and suicide rates. On average, suicide rates for 20 to 29-year-old males decrease 11 percent, while rates for 30 to 39 year olds drop 9 percent. 

 Prescription Drug Use Falls in Medical Cannabis States

We Need to Rethink Scheduling

Restricting cannabis as a Schedule I drug is morally indefensible. It’s time to rethink the lack of wisdom of our scheduling system. As I argue in my forthcoming book, Schedule ZERO: The Case for Rethinking Cannabis and Scheduling, we need to create a system that addresses the (legitimate) concerns of critics while recognizing the very real needs of patients. 

Research and common sense suggest cannabis is safer than alcohol and many other drugs — while also providing tremendous therapeutic value. But our politically — not scientifically — driven scheduling scheme has failed.

Colorado attorney and inaugural member of the Marijuana Policy Advisory Committee Robert Hoban explains why: “The term 'medicinal' is problematic because it carries with it the connotation that is often confused with FDA approval or pharmacological recognition. This term has consumer, patient, and legal significance beyond cannabis. And it will be difficult for mainstream health care to grasp or recognize this accordingly.”

Hoban believes we should replace the word “medicinal” with a term that more accurately describes whole-plant cannabis — e.g. “herbal” or “botanical.” This, in turn, could inspire more intelligent policy while eliminating confusion among “mainstream health care, science, policymakers, and patients.” 

The decades-long issues we’ve had accurately recognizing (and appreciating) cannabis for its impressive therapeutic versatility are not serving the public interest. Until we rethink our antiquated scheduling system, we will continue to impede scientific progress. At the end of the day, it’s patients who needlessly suffer. 

 It’s Time to Treat Medical Cannabis Like Medicine

  • FlunkedAgain

    The DEA is afraid of losing their jobs.

    • Jess Heron

      Even more relevant, losing their massive seizure fueled revenue source.

    • That’s why they invented the phony “opioid epidemic.” In the late 1990s Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich planned to abolish the DEA for their miserable failure at the “war on drugs” so to justify their jobs they created the myth of a massive opioid epidemic (which actually peaked in 2002 and has been in decline since)…. pretty pathetic. And the worst part is Clinton and Gingrich fell for it.

      • Les Mason

        64,000 drug overdoses occurred in 2016, or 175 a day. That is more than car crashes and gun deaths combined. No epidemic here in the USA. Just fake news I guess. Overdoses in Indiana increased 60% in the last five years. Real phony shit, my dead friend that went from pain killers to heroin after being cut off is a just fake news.

    • David K

      they want to fill for profit prisons, people of color are the ones that get charged the most

  • paulvonhartmann

    Drugs don’t make seeds, herbs do. Cannabis is an “herb bearing seed” (Genesis 1:29-31) that is valuable beyond the rightful jurisdiction of any “drug” court. In the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment is supposed to protect our right of “religious freedom.” The U.S. Constitution is being completely ignored by an outlaw regime the does not acknowledge the “sincere and legitimate” spiritual dimensions of organic farming, that used to be celebrated in “Thanksgiving” to the Creator for the harvest. Respect & appreciation for Nature has been edited out of our social evolution to the extent that “anything goes” in so-called “conventional” agriculture, including perversion of the natural systems and processes through the unbridled use of GMOs.

    Drugs and herbs are not equivalent. You can make a drug from an herb, but you cannot make an herb from a drug. They are NOT the same thing. Because drugs and herbs are different in so many ways, the broad and indistinct “laws” conveying wrongful authority over god-given, herbal Cannabis are “void for vagueness.”

    There are so many essential environmental services and essential biogenic industrial feedstocks provided by Cannabis, that to prohibit it threatens national security and global integrity. Carbon sequestration, stratospheric aerosol terpenes production, purification of the Earth’s hydrology, soil remineralization and detoxification are all uniquely provided in the quantities needed, in the time we may have left to make a difference, by Cannabis.

    Cannabis has been federally recognized as a “strategic resource” in seven Presidential Executive Orders, signed by seven American Presidents. Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Clinton and Obama (currently in-force, see EO 13603) have all signed emergency preparedness orders that name “hemp” as a strategic resource, i.e. essential to national security.

    The ‘marijuana’ industry is a multi-billion dollar industry. The industrial hemp industry is a multi-trillion dollar industry. That is why all strains of Cannabis have been eliminated from the so-called “free-market.” [sic]

    Hemp is the ONLY crop that produces complete nutrition AND sustainable biofuels from the same HARVEST, eliminating the trade-off between energy production and food security.

    Cannabis is not and never has been truly “illegal” because it is essential human existence on this planet. Without Cannabis, our species is forced into toxic parasitism upon the Earth, rather than having what we need to be symbiotic with the systems of this planet.

    Cannabis is mankind’s functional interface with the Natural Order. Without the “Gaiatherapeutic” benefits & environmental services provided by Cannabis, our society will continue to degenerate until systemic collapse finally becomes irreversible. Our children will suffer the worst of what’s coming, unless we reverse our current misguided valuation of Cannabis, from “illegal” to essential. Mankind’s inertial, economic addiction to fossil fuels and nuclear energy can only be resolved by expanding the world’s arable base with a non-invasive pioneer crop, that produces complete nutrition and sustainable, organic energy.

    • Philip Cammarano

      Well said, too many people don’t care anymore! Let’s pray that our people see what’s needed and act within the next ten years or i fear it may be too late!

  • Izzat So

    I suspect that the anti-marijuana attitude began with the reefer madness propaganda and was further enhanced by Nixon’s fear of blacks and Hispanics which precipitated the war on drugs (ie: on minorities). But eventually the basis shifted to money. Those entities making money such as the PharMa group, tobacco and alcohol producers, police forces, private prisons, and of course the DEA all have monetary reasons to keep marijuana schedule I. At some future point, as more and more states legalize it, and show big revenue gained from sales and taxes, there will be a tipping point where the pro-pot money will override the anti-pot money, and governments will throw in the towel and legalize it. I believe (as in so many things) that it’s all a matter of money. All other excuses and justifications are just red herrings.

  • lovingc

    Congress is about to make it a MOOT POINT they are about to deschedule cannabis from the CSA. Then what is little Jeffy going to do?

    • Gary Craig

      I don’t share your optimism, not yet anyway. There’s still too many dinosaurs, with Reefer Madness, in Congress. While many Republicans are afflicted with it too many Democrats are as well. Sen. Grassley & Sen. Feinstein are two. These bills are going nowhere in the House. Damn, I sure hope I’m wrong on this, but I don’t think I am. So, for the time being, we’ll all have to worry about this “talks out of both sides of its mouth” administration and AG Sessions and HHS Secretary Price.

  • JOCO

    I’m not sure why we can’t get this straight as a nation – especially the Fed. Cannabis is a plant, not a drug. Not much different from the fact that Penicillium is a mold. In a simplistic argument, certain types of the Penicillium mold are great antibacterial agents that comprise Penicillin, while others make Brie Cheese more flavorful. The same applies to the compounds found in Cannabis / Marijuana plants.

    To me, its all about the active ingredients, their consistent production and the form / delivery method. To that end, some could argue – it should be made into normal, mainstream pharmaceutical products and not (only) be looked at an ‘herbal remedy’. When limit it to botanical or herbal cures, we lose so much that the compounds have to offer since those industries don’t require the same levels of regulation and testing.It is critical to patients in need that the product is fully tested for it’s purity in terms of metals, pesticides, molds – etc, consistency of the chemical compounds.

    Just to be clear, it might sound like I disagree with the article, but I fully agree it. I only believe that the medicinal part is needed in addition to the herbal. The herbal is good and one that should come with the appropriate education (level of regulation and potential inconsistency). I also believe adult use and limited home growing of plant material should be legal. That gives the individual who uses for medical purposes the ability to control the safety and to some degree, my second largest concern which is consistency & consistent availability.

    As a PTSD, anxiety and IBD patient and even pain on occasion, I can tell you that the #1 most disappointing and irritating thing is to find one or more plant products that work really well for my specific conditions, with minimal if any side effects, and then trying to get more a month later to get something similar and maybe called the same but just gets you high and doesn’t address the conditions or simply not being able to get it at all. While high quality growers / providers often do maintain and consistently produce the same strains, even with no cross breeding and using tissue cultures or cuttings from other plants, environmental impacts to the plants can result in different qualities of the same genetics or a small evolution in plant genetics over time.

    As a result, to achieve a truly consistent product, (beyond the artificial synthesis which I don’t happen to believe in – for the same reason I don’t like High Fructose Corn Syrup), extraction and processing is really necessary. With proper techniques, the exact same product can be produced on a repeated basis – even with different strains as inputs (to a degree). While many of these methods will also eliminate mold, mites and other organic undesirables, they will actually magnify the pesticide or metals content since a concentrate is the initial ‘pre-processed’ output. All the more reason to require a high level of regulation around testing -which again points to the pharma oriented over herbal oriented approach.

    The third and fourth items that also favor the pharma oriented,manufacturing aspects are the dosing and form. While I personally believe vaporizing plant material may be the best form for an inexperienced user for most indications – since the effects are rapid and generally less strong than extracts (only because people tend to buy stronger ones – not because they cant be made equivalent to a plant), this method would be horrible for a patient like myself who had their tonsils out at age 45, or a cracked tooth extracted last month that came out in 17 pieces – as it was a cemented root canal-ed, molar with 2 other live roots. The pain was so severe for days after, that I took a couple of the hydrocodones the doc prescribed, but aside from the side effects, they wore off in 4 hours and didn’t completely kill the pain. Thankfully, a friend had a bottle of Tincture that specifically had high levels of CBD-A (as tested) that I could take under my tongue. Smoking or vaporizing would have hurt or irritating the healing (with a tooth extraction, you can’t even suck out of a straw let alone a vape pen if you don’t want dry socket). I used very little (a few drops at a time) for about a 7 day period with absolutely no psychoactive effects but with 100% pain relief for at least 6-7 hours per dosage. As a recreational user in college and realization of the medical benefits when I was in my late 20’s while in Amsterdam, I honestly never (found or) bought into the pain relief aspects until this same thing worked for my tonsil surgery a couple years ago, but now that I learned, it made me realize how important the form can be. While I’m not an MD, I have to believe the tincture worked so well for the mouth and throat pain both due to the alcohol based delivery method – which is rapidly absorbed into the blood stream and also the location of entry, Sublingual delivery literally made the pain go away in less than 15 seconds – completely.

    That being said, how can we get there with the current Federal laws and especially the new administration? Pharma products require gold standard testing which essentially can’t be done when the compounds are classified as Schedule 1 substances or a legislation change. Short of the country having the Martin Luther King of Marijuana – who can unite the nation from the bottom up – who then can force the hands of the politicians, one feasible way to get there is to let the states implement programs that are actually more aligned with standard Pharmaceutical processes and procedures – but only to the end that it ensures the critical quality, educational (side effects, indications, contraindications – etc.), dosing aspects of any drug (even Tylenol – which actually can kill people)

    I live in PA, and think our state has done a great job (at least a great start) to a program that attempts to align their regulations and compliance with FDA standards, advocate the education and involvement of the health care community (through hospital and large educational systems), and allow a broad list of 17 approved conditions for its use. While no new program can be perfect, there are some concerns of patient adoption if the forms are limited to extracts only with no flower or purchased edibles allowed, this is a regulatory item and not statutory so could easily change with program maturity.

    I mention the PA program as from what I know of other states, we require the one of, if not the highest level of CBD / active ingredient decomposition printed on each product label (10 specific ones, and anything higher than .1% active compound). This data will all be tracked and can be mapped to the patients that utilize it. With the proper data collection at the patient, provider, dispensary and/or caregiver level, a state level, specialty pharmacy program inclusive of patient outreach and efficacy feedback loops can actually be implemented over time to help the state and county drive the scale of documented research required to take the pharma aspects to the next level, improve patient care as well as change laws federally.

  • Dallas Besty

    That is a great article and I agree that the DEA stubbornly will not swallow their pride and admit that they have knowingly been lying about the benefits and dangers of marijuana for the last 40+ years. They seem to believe their own “fake news” that they have been publishing since the 70’s. Additionally, if Big Pharma can’t monopolize marijuana sales, it will spend what it needs to buy policy and keep new legislation from being introduced.

  • usernamed

    try to cite sources that cite their sources

  • Jody Noller

    The bottom line is that the Fed is in collusion with BigPharma and the Alcohol/Tobacco industry. If Cannabis were legalized on the federal level- all of these entities would lose tremendous profits as their toxic pharmaceuticals would fall out of favor with the public since Cannabis has so many medicinal uses and does not poison the body. It’s a conspiracy against all of us who desire a natural source of pain relief. As long as we have backward ignoramuses in government as we do now- Cannabis will not be descheduled or legalized on the federal level IMO

    • Wake Up People

      Hemp cuts into the Petroleum lubricant and fuel markets.

      William Randolph Hurst hated it, because it messed with HIS Paper industry profits.

      Don’t forget the garment industry.

  • kristine08

    All I know is vaping CBD/THC oils, helped wean me down from 120 mgs of Oxycodone, to 10 mgs per day.

  • BruceIshikawa

    There is no reason for the existence of the DEA. They serve no purpose and cause pain and death. Insanity.

    • Wake Up People

      Part of the definition of SATAN! LOL!

  • D Harlo

    Money. Plain and simple.

    The DEA gets huge amounts of cash for their “cannabis eradication program”, as well as other areas.

    Marijuana is the DEA cash crop so to speak. Less money means less DEA. It’s the very reason it was demonized at the beginning in the 1930s.

    It’s really disgusting how they’ve kept the worlds greatest plant under their thumb for almost 100 years now! But not for much longer…