The Drug Enforcement Administration says it plans to decide within the next several months whether to change the federal status of marijuana, according to a letter sent to lawmakers this week.
Marijuana is currently classified as a Schedule I drug, alongside the likes of LSD and heroin, which means it is deemed to have a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use. Rescheduling could make it easier for researchers to study potential uses of the drug, a move that medical marijuana advocates would cheer.
The letter to lawmakers, signed by the heads of the DEA, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of National Drug Control Policy, states that the DEA has received scientific and medical evaluations as well as a scheduling recommendation from HHS and that it hopes to release a determination on rescheduling “in the first half of 2016.”
The letter does not disclose the HHS rescheduling recommendation.
Rescheduling of a Schedule I to a Schedule II drug is rare. The DEA has done so just five times, according to a 2015 report by the Brookings Institution.
While Schedule II drugs are still classified as having high potential for abuse, they have an accepted medical use in treatment and can be prescribed under tight restrictions. Morphine, oxycodone and cocaine fall into this category.
“Reclassifying cannabis will make scientific research easier and will send a strong signal that the U.S. government is finally ready to acknowledge that marijuana has medical value,” said Tom Angell, chairman of the advocacy group the Marijuana Majority.
Igor Grant, director of the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at the University of California, San Diego, is one researcher with firsthand experience navigating the bureaucratic hurdles it takes to gain approval for a marijuana study. He says past studies aimed at determining whether marijuana has medicinal effects have taken six to 18 months just to gain approval.
Rescheduling marijuana would make it easier to obtain approvals and require a research facility to get federal agencies to sign off on related studies or study modifications less often, Dr. Grant said.
“It would make it easier practically,” he said.
With the arduous constraints in place, others have opted instead to engage in clinical trials to study effects of cannabinoids, the active compound in marijuana, rather than marijuana itself.
Kevin Hill, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School’s McLean Hospital, is overseeing two studies involving cannabinoids that he said may help determine ways to treat a small percentage of marijuana users who become addicted to the drug.
Using cannabinoids that are Schedule II and Schedule III drugs makes it easier to get federal agencies to sign off on the studies. That still doesn’t address the reality that with marijuana legal for medicinal use in 23 states and the District of Columbia, a lot of people are using marijuana as medicine to treat ailments that haven’t been well-studied, Dr. Hill said.
“We need to have more of the evidence,” he said.
While researchers remain hopeful, others are skeptical that the DEA will reschedule marijuana.
Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which is against recreational marijuana legalization, said rescheduling would be more of a symbolic victory for advocates than a real victory for researchers. He agrees that it should be easier for researchers to study the effects of marijuana and argues that the DEA could support such research by rescheduling additional cannabinoid compounds as Schedule II or Schedule III drugs — but he sees rescheduling the drug itself as a step too far.
“It’s very different,” Mr. Sabet said. “We don’t smoke opium to get the effects of morphine.”
The DEA has a history of rejecting petitions to reschedule marijuana, with the latest shot down in 2011, according to the Brookings Institution.
But since the last rejection, a slew of medical groups and researchers have come out in favor of rescheduling.
The American Academy of Pediatrics last year recommended that the DEA reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II drug to make it easier to facilitate clinical trial research of the drug in the hopes of finding benefits for children. The Epilepsy Foundation of America, a national nonprofit advocating on behalf of epilepsy patients, has also come out in favor of access to cannabis for seizure sufferers.
Amid growing support nationwide for legalization of medical and recreational use of marijuana, DEA acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg has taken issue with arguments regarding potential medical benefits of marijuana being used to push legalization efforts.
In a meeting with reporters late last year, Mr. Rosenberg acknowledged that some extracts of marijuana have shown potential to treat illnesses including childhood epilepsy, but he said that shouldn’t be construed to mean that smoking marijuana is safe.
“We can have an intellectually honest debate about whether or not we want to legalize something that is bad and dangerous, but don’t call it medicine. That’s a joke,” he said. “My view is that we will support any legitimate research into the efficacy of marijuana for its constituent parts as a medicine. But I think the notion that state legislatures just decree it so is ludicrous.”