The Drug Enforcement Administration is keeping marijuana on the federal list of the most dangerous drugs, despite growing popular support for legalization, but will allow more research into its possible medical benefits. Pictured: Harvested marijuana is trimmed at a Denver cultivation facility in February 2013. (Kathryn Scott Osler, Denver Post file)

The destructive, decades-long war on pot hobbles along, thanks to DEA

The Obama administration’s decision to expand opportunities for scientific research of medical marijuana, while leaving cannabis classification under its longtime most-dangerous-drug status, strikes us as an important step, but hardly a solution.

The decision is hopeful in that it signals an attempt to end the bureaucratic hurdles that prevent scientific study of the drug that so many advocates claim has curative powers. But leaving in place the stigma and legal problems that a Schedule I designation creates makes the administration’s attempt to find some middle ground difficult to truly appreciate.

And by leaving cannabis in that most-dangerous category — a category that defines pot as having zero medicinal value — the decision leaves in place restrictions that baffle researchers and does nothing to ameliorate the many problems state-legal cannabis businesses must navigate. Nor, obviously, does it do much good for personal freedom in states where cannabis remains illegal. And so the destructive, decades-long war on pot hobbles along.

But declassifying cannabis was a long-shot. Despite the fact that public opinion toward legalization has greatly shifted toward acceptance, legitimate questions about its safety exist. More study is in order, and to that end, Thursday’s news is positive.

The decision means more researchers now may be allowed to grow marijuana for testing purposes. For more than 40 years, the feds have restricted cannabis grows for research to the University of Mississippi, which has produced low-grade, low-THC weed that researchers say is difficult to obtain.

Consider the plight of Sue Sisley, a doctor interested in studying pot’s therapeutic potential in treating post-traumatic stress disorder. She’s been working for nearly seven years for access to the federal government’s approved supply.

Looking over the federal guidelines issued Thursday, Sisley found an immediate stumbling block. Turns out that the best cannabis growers in the world, those in Colorado and Washington, where cannabis is legal, wouldn’t be allowed to participate in the expansion because those experts have been growing in violation of federal law. These are growers skilled in producing specific strains with specific attributes that researchers would covet.

And Sisley, who ought to know, says a longstanding problem with the traditional system is that there have been no requirements that bureaucrats meet hard deadlines in responding to requests for material.

“There are a lot of missing pieces here,” she tells us. “We’re all skeptical.”

Medical marijuana patients and their advocates in Colorado, meanwhile, see the slow progress as borderline cruel. And little wonder, given anecdotal stories that suggest cannabis can provide real benefit in helping reduce pain, tame seizures and slow the spread of certain diseases.

Perhaps the next administration will be able to take this week’s progress further. As the Brookings Institution’s John Hudak notes, if the feds had reclassified pot, the next president might be tempted to consider the problem solved, when in fact many more complicated questions must be worked through before we have a reasonable and trustworthy system for bringing cannabis into the mainstream legal and medical marketplace.

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