Marijuana’s Mystifying Misclassification

August 27, 2016

On August 11, when the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) rejected two petitions asking it to reclassify marijuana, Fox News anchor Shepard Smith did not try to conceal his contempt. “LSD, MDMA, a plant that grows in the yard—all one thing,” he said sarcastically. “The DEA announced today it will keep marijuana on the list of the most dangerous drugs in all the world, along with heroin, LSD, and MDMA….Thanks, DEA, you’ve really got a lot of credibility.”

Smith’s dismay was echoed by activists, scientists, commentators, and members of Congress from both major parties, who said the DEA’s decision was at odds with what we know about marijuana’s hazards and benefits. There is a lot of truth to that critique, and the DEA can reasonably be faulted for stubbornly refusing to remove marijuana from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), a category that is supposedly reserved for drugs with “a high potential for abuse,” “no currently accepted medical use,” and “a lack of accepted safety for use…under medical supervision.”

But bureaucratic intransigence is only part of the story. The other part is the CSA itself, a legal morass that leaves crucial phrases undefined, gives the DEA wide discretion to decide where drugs belong, and establishes arbitrary, inconsistent rules that make it impossible to properly classify many drugs.

Since Schedule I is the CSA’s most restrictive category, people tend to assume it’s supposed to be a list of “the most dangerous drugs in all the world,” as Shepard Smith put it. But Chuck Rosenberg, the DEA’s acting administrator, says that’s a misleading way of describing Schedule I. In fact, he says, the decision to keep marijuana in that category did not involve an assessment of its relative hazards.

While the DEA’s determination that marijuana belongs in Schedule I was widely interpreted to mean it thinks marijuana is about as dangerous as other drugs in that category and more dangerous than drugs in lower schedules, the head of the DEA insists that is not what the decision means.

“Schedule I includes some substances that are exceptionally dangerous and some that are less dangerous (including marijuana, which is less dangerous than some substances in other schedules),” Rosenberg writes in an August 11 letter to Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, whose predecessors filed one of the rescheduling petitions that the DEA rejected this month. “That strikes some people as odd, but the criteria [sic] for inclusion in Schedule I is not relative danger….It is best not to think of drug scheduling as an escalating ‘danger’ scale—rather, specific statutory criteria (based on medical and scientific evidence) determine into which schedule a substance is placed.”

Rosenberg’s concession that marijuana “is less dangerous than some substances in other schedules” stands in stark contrast with his predecessor’s refusal to say whether heroin is more dangerous than marijuana. A year ago, Rosenberg admitted that “heroin is clearly more dangerous than marijuana,” and now he is taking the further step of saying some drugs in lower schedules are also more dangerous. But he argues that such observations do not mean marijuana should be reclassified.

According to the DEA’s official explanation of its decision, the only factor that mattered was whether marijuana has a “currently accepted medical use.” The agency says meeting that criterion requires the sort of large, expensive clinical studies that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) demands before approving a new medicine.

While such studies have been conducted with marijuana’s main active ingredient (which is how Marinol, a capsule containing synthetic THC, was approved by the FDA in 1985) and are under way with Sativex, an oral cannabis extract spray, they have not been conducted with the whole plant. So unless the DEA was willing to reconsider its longstanding, court-approved definition of “currently accepted medical use,” it was inevitable that it would once again say no to rescheduling.

Why does the DEA say medical use is the only criterion that matters? Because that is the main distinction between Schedule I and Schedule II, which includes tightly controlled medications such as opioid painkillers, methamphetamine, PCP, and cocaine. Under the CSA, Schedule II drugs have the same abuse potential as Schedule I drugs, but they have countervailing medical benefits.

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