- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Obama administration has looked the other way as more than a dozen states enacted medical marijuana laws and five jurisdictions legalized the drug for recreational use, but when faced with what was likely its final chance during President Obama’s tenure to loosen federal restrictions on the medicinal use of the drug, the administration has chosen to puff, puff, pass.

The Drug Enforcement Administration on Thursday denied requests to change the legal classification of marijuana, shooting down advocates’ latest push to get the drug federally approved for medical purposes.

DEA acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg wrote in the announcement that an evaluation by the Department of Health and Human Services concluded that the drug “has no currently accepted medical use in treatment” and “a high potential for abuse.”

“If the scientific understanding about marijuana changes — and it could change — the decision could change,” Mr. Rosenberg wrote in a letter to petitioners. “It certainly would be odd to rely on science when it suits us and ignore it otherwise.”

Issued less than six months before Mr. Obama’s term ends, the DEA decision leaves the federal government at odds with roughly half of states that have approved marijuana for medical use and disappoints advocates who hoped its rescheduling would make it easier to study potential benefits of the drug.

Tom Angell, chairman of the Marijuana Majority, said the decision was a missed opportunity for an administration that had signaled a willingness for reform.

“President Obama always said he would let science — and not ideology — dictate policy, but in this case his administration is upholding a failed drug war approach instead of looking at real, existing evidence that marijuana has medical value,” Mr. Angell said.

Mr. Obama gave advocates hope that he might take action to downgrade the drug’s classification when he said he didn’t think marijuana was more dangerous than alcohol.

Instead, the Justice Department has refrained from challenging state laws that allow for medical or recreational marijuana use as long as their state regulatory systems follow certain guidelines.

The hands-off approach has given the marijuana industry room to grow and thrive, said Taylor West, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association.

Fifteen of 25 states that have approved medical marijuana have done so since Mr. Obama took office in 2008. Meanwhile, four states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana use.

“It’s not as if we haven’t seen tremendous progress in these eight years,” Ms. West said. “It’s a far cry from the early years of the administration when medical dispensaries were regularly getting raided and patients getting arrested.”

But she lamented the hurdles the cannabis industry faces when the federal government continues to view marijuana as illegal, particularly when it comes to banking regulations that have driven many in the business to stick to cash transactions.

“It’s not OK for a $7 billion industry to continue to have to operate in limbo,” Ms. West said.

Under the Controlled Substances Act, marijuana is a Schedule I drug — as are heroin, LSD and Ecstasy. The DEA concluded it could not downgrade marijuana from its Schedule I classification, considered the most dangerous class of drugs, for medical use because the HHS evaluation found “the drug’s chemistry is not known and reproducible; there are no adequate safety studies; there are no adequate and well-controlled studies proving efficacy; the drug is not accepted by qualified experts; and the scientific evidence is not widely available.”

A reclassification as a Schedule 2 drug — the only scheduling option the DEA said it had in order to comply with international treaties — wouldn’t have legalized the medical use of marijuana, but advocates said the highly symbolic move would have placed it in a less tightly regulated class of drugs and could have opened the door to additional avenues of research for medical purposes.

The DEA did relax regulations that make it easier for institutions to grow marijuana for scientific research. The University of Mississippi had been the only facility in the United States authorized to grow pot for research.

Though more than half of Americans now believe that marijuana should be legal, plenty were pleased by the DEA’s decision. Calvina Fay, executive director of the Drug Free America Foundation, said rescheduling marijuana would have been irresponsible.

“The facts show that marijuana continues to be the most frequently used and abused illicit drug in the nation,” Ms. Fay said. “To reschedule this drug for ‘medical purposes’ without the legitimate research to back it up would be fraudulent and reckless.”

Drug policy reform advocates have long questioned how involved the White House would be on the issue of marijuana rescheduling.

“And I think the answer is not very much,” said Michael Collins, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “They left this to the DEA to decide, and that’s why we are where we are. If the White House had been more involved in this, I think the answer would have been a different one.”

A group of D.C. activists planned to protest the announcement Thursday night by singing songs out of tune outside the White House to symbolize how “the Obama administration and DEA are tone-deaf to cannabis reform,” said organizer Nikolas Schiller.

“If the Obama administration can sit by idly and not doing anything, that’s a lack of leadership,” said Mr. Schiller, a co-founder of DCMJ, the organization responsible for getting marijuana legalization on the ballot in the District in 2014.

As Americans go to the polls to elect the next president in November, voters in five states are set to decide on legalization of recreational marijuana. With the likely expansion of the marijuana industry in several of those states, advocates wish federal policy changes could have been locked down before the election.

Mr. Angell believes both Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican candidate Donald Trump have said enough publicly about respecting state marijuana laws that it would be politically difficult for either to move away from that stance. But he notes the Justice Department guidelines about respecting state laws are just that — guidelines.

“They are not set in stone,” he said. “The next president could change that on a whim, and that’s concerning.”

With the rescheduling effort shot down by the DEA, advocates say they will look to Congress to tap into the momentum of the states.


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