This Monday, the Drug Policy Alliance and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies released a report titled “The DEA: Four Decades of Impeding and Rejecting Science.” Using case studies from 1972 to the present, the report argues the ways the US Drug Enforcement Administration has suppressed research on the positive benefits of marijuana for medical use.
The crux of the report is this: The DEA has worked to paint marijuana into an inescapable corner by both repeatedly (and falsely) stating that marijuana has no proven medical use and by systematically impeding clinical research that would prove such medical benefit. This refusal to either acknowledge or study the drug allows it to continue being classified as a Schedule I drug, the most heavily regulated illegal substance.
Schedule I drugs, according to the DEA itself, are those with no medical use and “the most dangerous” with “potentially severe psychological or physical dependence.”
Marijuana is classified as Schedule I along with heroin, LSD, ecstasy, and peyote. But drugs that are classified as Schedule II and considered to have “less abuse potential” include cocaine, methamphetamine, and opium.
The Drug Policy Alliance/MAPS report recommends taking the power to schedule and classify drugs away from the DEA, a criminal justice agency, and instead giving jurisdiction to a health or science based division of government.
“It’s like giving the Highway Patrol the ability to set speed limits,” Sean Dunagan, a former DEA senior intelligence research specialist, told VICE News.
Dunagan, a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, said DEA culture is vehemently anti-drug and “stuck in the 1980’s rhetoric” of the war on drugs.
“It’s like giving the Highway Patrol the ability to set speed limits.”
“The DEA is never going to approach scheduling decisions on the basis of science,” said Dunagan. “It’s necessarily skewed in one direction.”
Scheduling doesn’t affect the way a drug’s criminality is enforced, Dunagan explained. Cocaine busts usually bring harsher sentences than pot offenses, but the fact that marijuana remains in the Schedule I category is part of the DEA’s ongoing defense against legalization.
So why is cocaine classified as a less dangerous, Schedule II drug? Because it was once used as a topical anesthetic for surgery — a use that has long been out of fashion in surgical wards across the US.
In 2009, the American Medical Association (AMA) reversed its previously anti-pot stance and declared that clinical trials had evidenced the use of cannabis in reducing neuropathic pain, reducing spasms in multiple sclerosis patients, and improved appetite in those suffering from nausea and loss of muscle mass.
The AMA recommended that marijuana’s Schedule I status “be reviewed with the goal of facilitating clinical research and development of cannabis-based medicines and alternate delivery systems.”
Drug Policy Alliance says schedule classifications aren’t even the main thing getting in the way of research. The organization's Jag Davies told VICE News that the biggest problem facing clinical researchers is the fact that the government is the only place where you can get legal, research-grade marijuana.
“The only federally approved provider of marijuana is the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which is part of Health and Human Services. But they are very politically motivated and aren’t interested in its medical research,” Davies said.
“If you want to do a study on any drug, you have to get FDA approval, a DEA license to possess the drug, and then you purchase the drug from a manufacturer that has a DEA license to produce the drugs,” he explained. “Say I’m doing a study on heroin, meth, or LSD — I can purchase that from a federally licensed private facility.”
He said marijuana is the only drug not produced for research by any third party drug manufacturer. In order to study marijuana’s clinical benefits, a research team must be approved by Health and Human Services (HHS), who then recommends that NIDA give them the drug.
"HHS agencies have approved and funded hundreds of research projects (intramural, extramural, and independently funded) on adverse effects and therapeutic uses for marijuana," an HHS spokesperson told VICE News. "There has not been any government blockade of research on the potential medical benefits of marijuana, and in fact there has been significant research conducted over the last few years."
According to the report, the DEA refuses to license any other drug manufacturer to grow marijuana for scientific research. So the only place researchers can go to get it is a government agency that states in its very name the perception that all drug use is abuse.
Marijuana is the only drug, said Davies, not produced for research by any third party drug manufacturer.
A NIDA spokesperson told VICE News the agency supplies a variety of drugs to researchers, including several classes of cannabidinoids, hallucinogens, and other controlled substances like methamphetamine. A full catalog of the government drug supply for researchers is available online.
Though the NIDA catalog states that the drugs are available to “research investigators working in the area of drug abuse, drug addiction, and related disciplines,” the spokesperson informed VICE News that there are currently almost 30 active NIDA-funded studies on marijuana’s therapeutic benefits.
However, a glance at the list of active NIDA-funded marijuana studies shows that only 12 have a primary focus on therapeutic benefit, while the other 13 focus on withdrawal and addiction.
Only 15 independent studies since 1999 have received research-grade marijuana through NIDA.
This March, MAPS finally got a letter of approval to run a clinical marijuana trial after what they say was a 12-year battle. But in May, NIDA informed MAPS that despite being the only source for the drug, they just didn’t have particular strain needed for the study. In fact, NIDA would have to start growing some pot plants from scratch, saying they might be ready by this fall.
MAPS published a timeline of its longstanding struggles to get marijuana approved for various clinical trials. Currently the only organization in the world funding clinical trials using MDMA as therapy to treat PTSD in veterans, MAPS slammed NIDA for its lack of marijuana availability, saying “NIDA is required under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 to provide a “continuous and uninterrupted supply” of marijuana for research, which they have now admitted to failing to provide.”
“The DEA basically protects NIDA’s monopoly by refusing to issue licenses to anyone else,” Davies told VICE News, “The DEA’s blockage of research on marijuana is really the hidden story behind the medical marijuana movement of the past couple decades. It doesn’t make sense to many in the medical profession that we would regulate drugs at the state level, but because the process at the federal level has been blocked for so many decades, we’ve turned to state regulations.”
As long as the agencies continue to block federally funded clinical studies that could prove marijuana’s medical benefits, doctors have no choice but to recommend legally prescribeable drugs from Schedule II and beyond, such as opiates like oxycodone.
If doctors choose to recommend medical marijuana, even in states that legalized the drug, they face getting their federal licenses taken away – such as when DEA agents recently showed up at the homes of several Massachusetts doctors, threatening them with ultimatums.
“This is an important issue beyond just marijuana,” Dunagan said. “There are so many other drugs that have so much medical potential and aren’t being used. You have to wonder what drugs people are taking instead when they aren’t given access to this.”
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