For the past three years, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has been sitting on a stack of applications from more than 30 different institutions requesting permission to grow their own cannabis for research purposes. Though weed has become increasingly legalized and normalized in states across the U.S., and though Canadian scientists recently received more opportunities to study the plant thanks to that country's move to legalize, strict anti-pot regulations at the federal level mean that American researchers have had their hands tied.
On Monday, the DEA did something about that. Or at least said it would do something. The agency announced, after continued complaints about inactivity from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, that it would go "forward to facilitate and expand scientific and medical research for marijuana by increasing the number of growers for research." Currently, the only place allowed to grow its own cannabis for studies is the University of Mississippi, as part of a deal it has with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA); other doctors and academics have criticized the weed the university produces as being of much lower quality than that available in states with either medical and legal weed, and the arrangement has been labeled monopolistic.
However, most of the ten or so experts that VICE contacted were exceedingly skeptical of the DEA’s announcement, both in terms of what it would actually do, and how quickly it would do it. (A majority of researchers did not wish to comment on how they might benefit, because it’s too early in the process.) Even if it seems as though the prohibition around medical cannabis will eventually be loosened, setting up a system to decide which research applications to grant could introduce an entire new host of problems and would not necessarily decrease the stigma around studying the drug, especially if it remains illegal at the federal level.
The DEA had to be prodded into making its decision by the courts: In June, the Arizona-based Scottsdale Research Institute asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to demand the DEA go through the growing pile of applications. The DEA, as ordered by the court, had to respond to that request by Wednesday.
Some have speculated that the DEA has now started down the road to removing cannabis from its classification as a Schedule I drug, a category that defines it as having "no currently accepted medical use" and groups it in with drugs like heroin. (Activists have been demanding its reclassification since at least the 1970s.) The problem is that it's likely much too soon to tell what the DEA actually plans to do in the long term.
"This decision has been several years in the making, building on decades of turning a deaf ear on well-reasoned calls for change," said Leo Beletsky, a professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University. "But I'm not as optimistic as others have been in calling this 'groundbreaking' because the DEA is only proposing the change, so we are potentially years from actual reform."
For Mason Marks, an assistant professor of law at Gonzaga University, the DEA's action could even be a distraction, since it doesn't come with a pledge to reschedule cannabis.
"The real conversation we should be having is about rescheduling cannabis, removing it from Schedule I," Marks said. "A significant problem in generating research is the stigma imparted to substances by their membership in Schedule I. Even if the DEA creates a system to promote research on cannabis, if it remains in Schedule I, many universities and other organizations will remain hesitant to invest in studying it."
Marks is concerned that the DEA's new rules could lead to privileging "powerful corporations and drug companies" and perhaps shut out researchers who belong to one of "many vulnerable groups, including racial minorities" that have been disproportionately harmed by the war on drugs.
Sam Kamin, a professor of marijuana law and policy at the University of Denver, believes this move could be a step toward reclassifying cannabis, because the federal government has been essentially insisting it needs more clinical trials to make such a switch—despite the fact that 33 states have medical marijuana programs, and 11 have legalized it recreationally. But as the federal government slowly considers whether to loosen regulations, it will have to decide whether to treat it as a medicine a doctor can prescribe, or a recreational drug that anyone with the proper permit can sell. Right now, cannabis is occupying a gray area, and it's up to the feds to change that.
"We don't have an example of something that is used legally both recreationally and medicinally," Kamin said. "People might use OxyContin recreationally and medically, but obviously one of those uses is illegal. We use alcohol recreationally, but nobody gets prescribed it. So at some point in our society, it feels as if we need to decide which is this: Is it a useful medicine, or is it a choice that adults get to make?"
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