The November election will be a pivotal moment for the future of U.S. marijuana policy. Voters in five states, including California, will decide whether to legalize weed for recreational use by adults, and citizens in four others will cast ballots on whether to allow medical marijuana.
If all of the measures succeed, it could force federal lawmakers to reconcile restrictive federal drug laws with shifting public opinion. Marijuana is classified by the federal government as a Schedule I controlled substance, which puts it in the same category as heroin and LSD, yet the latest national polls show 57 percent of U.S. adults now think weed should be legal.
Removing marijuana from Schedule I would require an act of Congress; federal regulators have repeatedly stymied efforts to downgrade weed to a less restrictive classification — and now we know why. VICE News obtained 118 pages of documents (viewable in full below) that show why the feds believe marijuana is not medicine, despite the fact that 25 states and Washington, D.C., now have medical marijuana laws on the books.
In August, the Drug Enforcement Administration rejected two petitions to reschedule cannabis, which would facilitate scientific research on the plant. The DEA ruled that marijuana has “no currently accepted medical use” and a “high potential for abuse.”
But the DEA didn’t make the call on its own. It relied on input from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which was tasked with deciding whether marijuana is considered medicine. As reported previously by VICE News, the FDA gave its advice to the DEA in mid-2015, almost a full year before the announcement that marijuana would remain in the Schedule I category, but it did not make the recommendation public.
The FDA initially rejected a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by VICE News to obtain the marijuana scheduling recommendation and records related to it. But after we appealed the ruling, the FDA provided documents that offer a detailed explanation of its pot findings.
The documents include a memo between two top FDA officials, a letter from the agency to the DEA’s chief, and the full response to two petitions to reschedule marijuana filed in 2012 by the former governors of Rhode Island and Washington and in 2009 by a psychiatric nurse practitioner who helped write New Mexico’s medical marijuana law. We’re also pursuing an appeal and have filed a second request to get emails and other records related to marijuana’s Schedule I status from the FDA.
Some of the records were already publicly available, but taken as a whole, the documents reveal the reasoning that keeps weed in a more restrictive category than cocaine, OxyContin, and fentanyl, all of which are Schedule II.
The highlights include findings that conclude:
- Marijuana is addictive to monkeys. The FDA cited a study conducted in 2000 on squirrel monkeys that were trained to self-administer THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in weed. Researchers found that the monkeys liked to get high, and the FDA said such studies are “often useful in predicting rewarding effects in humans, and is indicative of abuse liability.”
- People prefer to smoke marijuana. Noting that many people prefer to smoke marijuana rather than take it in pill form, the FDA compared weed to cocaine, opium, heroin, and meth. “The intense psychoactive drug effect achieved rapidly by smoking is generally considered to produce the effect desired by the abuser,” the FDA wrote, adding, “this effect explains why abusers often prefer to administer certain drugs by inhalation… rather than orally.”
- Getting high makes users feel funny. The FDA listed nine common effects of marijuana, including “increased merriment and appetite,” “heightened imagination,” “disorganized thinking,” “illusions, delusions, and hallucinations,” and “agitation, paranoia, confusion, drowsiness, and panic attacks, which are most common in experienced or high-dosed users.”
- It’s easy to buy weed. The agency noted that marijuana is “more widely available from illicit sources rather than through legitimate channels,” which seems obvious considering that the drug remains illegal for nonmedical users in all but four states.
- Marijuana is popular. In a section about the “history and current pattern of abuse,” the FDA cites 2012 data that says 111.2 million Americans — more than 42 percent of the U.S. population — used marijuana at least once, and 7.6 million people use it on a “daily or almost daily basis.”
The FDA also cited a number of studies that show weed is relatively safe, including findings that state:
- It’s not a “gateway drug.” Discussing the so-called “gateway effect” that supposedly leads pot smokers to try more dangerous drugs, the FDA stated that research does not support a “direct causal relationship between regular marijuana use and other illicit drug use.”
- It doesn’t seem to cause cancer. A large study with 1,650 subjects found that “a positive association was not found between marijuana and lung cancer,” a finding that “remained true, regardless of the extent of marijuana use when controlling for tobacco use and other potential confounding variables.”
- There’s no link to mental illness. In a section about the common suggestion that smoking weed can lead to schizophrenia and other types of mental illness, the FDA said “extensive research” shows no “causative link between marijuana use and the development of psychosis.”
- It’s no more addictive than tobacco. The FDA noted that frequent use of marijuana “produces physical dependence that is mild, short-lived, and comparable to tobacco withdrawal.”
- It doesn’t make you dumber, at least not permanently. While studies show weed may cause long-term problems for people who start smoking heavily before age 15, the FDA said that isn’t true for adults. “After three months of abstinence,” the agency wrote, “any deficits observed in IQ, immediate memory, delayed memory, and information-processing speeds following heavy marijuana use compared to pre-drug use scores were no longer apparent.”
While ultimately recommending that marijuana remain Schedule I, the FDA also said “more research should be conducted into marijuana’s effects, including potential medical uses for marijuana and its derivatives.” In a statement to VICE News, FDA spokesperson Michael Felberbaum noted that the FDA has “an interest in developing therapies from marijuana.”
“We continue to encourage work to assess whether there are appropriate and effective therapeutic uses of marijuana and its components and believe the drug-approval process using scientifically valid and well-controlled clinical trials is the most appropriate way for this to occur,” Felberbaum said.
The problem is that marijuana’s continued placement in Schedule I creates a catch-22 that makes the “scientifically valid” research that Felberbaum referenced very difficult to conduct. While the DEA recently made it slightly easier for scientists to grow weed for studies, scientists who want to study the drug still face a massive tangle of red tape.
The FDA has called for the legal status of marijuana “constituents,” such as cannabidiol, an extract used to treat epilepsy and other conditions, to be reviewed separately in the future.
But barring another petition to reschedule marijuana, which would take years to resolve and likely lead to the same conclusion, the only way for weed’s Schedule I status to change is for Congress to address the issue. And whether that happens or not may depend on how state voters cast their ballots on Nov. 8.