Acting Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) administrator Chuck Rosenberg talks before he testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 22, 2016, before a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the DEA’s fiscal 2017 budget request. (Alex Brandon, AP)

Is the DEA rescheduling weed? We’ll find out soon

DEA's new, lengthy memo also underscores how little marijuana is being made available for research purposes

In a lengthy memo to lawmakers, the Drug Enforcement Administration said it hopes to decide whether to change the federal status of marijuana “in the first half of 2016.”

Marijuana is currently listed under the Controlled Substances Act as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning that for the purposes of federal law, the drug has “no medical use and a high potential for abuse” and is one of “the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence.” Marijuana shares Schedule 1 status with heroin, and it is more strictly regulated than the powerful prescription painkillers that have killed more than 165,000 people since 1999.

First set in 1970, marijuana’s classification under the Controlled Substances Act has become increasingly out of step with scientific research, public opinion, medical use and state law. Citing marijuana’s potentially significant therapeutic potential for a number of serious ailments, including chronic pain and epilepsy, organizations such as the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics have called on the DEA to change the drug’s scheduling status.

But the DEA has rebuffed numerous previous attempts at rescheduling, sometimes after decades of stonewalling, and in at least one case overrode the recommendation of its own administrative judge. The current petition before the DEA was initiated by then-governors Christine Gregoire of Washington and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island in 2011. In a previous letter to lawmakers, the DEA indicated it had all the information it needed to make the decision as of last September.

The current memo, written in conjunction with the heads of the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of National Drug Control Policy, also provides a detailed look at how the federal government provides marijuana to researchers. Currently, the government grants a monopoly on marijuana production for research purposes to one program at the University of Mississippi. “Because of this monopoly, research-grade drugs that meet researchers’ specifications often take years to acquire, if they are produced at all,” a Brookings Institution report argued last year.

Marijuana plants are packed together under grow lights at a Colorado cultivation facility in April 2015. (David Zalubowski, Associated Press file)
Marijuana plants are packed together under grow lights at a Colorado cultivation facility in April 2015. (David Zalubowski, Associated Press file)

According to the memo, in the years between 2010 and 2015, the government provided marijuana for research purposes to an average of nine researchers per year. Given the rapidly changing marijuana policy landscape, experts say that level of support is nowhere near enough to keep up with research demand.

“That number is totally insufficient to meet public health needs and to answer the number of [research] questions that pop up yearly,” the Brookings Institution’s John Hudak said in an interview.

Hudak said the small number of researchers working with marijuana in any given year is less a function of the government turning down applications, and more a function of an onerous, convoluted application process — one that requires approval from multiple government agencies and deters academics from even pursuing this type of research. “People just aren’t applying because of all the headaches involved,” he said. “It’s a huge disincentive for the academic community.”

The bureaucratic hurdles also mean that colleges and universities are often hesitant to fund marijuana research for fear of running afoul of complex federal regulations. One ongoing study on the use of marijuana to treat veterans with PTSD has been struggling to get off the ground for more than five years, for instance.

Meanwhile, researchers say, families desperate for relief for loved ones’ ailments are taking matters into their own hands, moving across state lines and turning to social media to answer complicated questions about marijuana dosing and treatment — questions to which researchers themselves don’t have the answers.

Still, Hudak credits the DEA, HHS and ONDCP for the thoroughness of their response to lawmakers’ questions in this instance. In addition to detailed information about the quantity and type of marijuana the federal government makes available to researchers, the memo outlines the steps the government is taking to improve coordination among federal agencies on data quality.