Decision at odds with laws in nearly half of states; will likely hamper medical research, doctors say
THURSDAY, Aug. 11, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has refused the request of two former state governors to ease marijuana's restrictive classification under current drug laws.
The DEA said it based its decision largely on information from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The FDA previously concluded that marijuana has "no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States," according to National Public Radio (NPR).
"This decision isn't based on danger. This decision is based on whether marijuana, as determined by the FDA, is a safe and effective medicine, and it's not," DEA chief Chuck Rosenberg said in the NPR report.
The request -- initially proposed in 2011 -- sought to have marijuana reclassified from a Schedule I drug to a Schedule II drug.
Schedule I drugs are considered drugs "with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse," the DEA says on its website. Heroin, LSD and ecstasy stand alongside marijuana on the DEA's Schedule I list.
On the other hand, Schedule II drugs have a high potential for abuse, but "there is the recognition that they have some medical value as well," said Dr. J. Michael Bostwick, a professor of psychiatry at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
Morphine, methamphetamine, cocaine and oxycodone are all Schedule II drugs, "because they have medical applications," Bostwick said. "So, it's not as if we don't have precedent for substances that are dangerous from an addictive point of view being useful in certain medical situations."
Paul Armentano, deputy director of the marijuana legalization group NORML, said in an earlier interview that even a reclassification by the DEA would fall "well short of the sort of federal reform necessary to reflect America's emerging reefer reality."
This latest decision means federal law continues to conflict with the medicinal marijuana laws passed in 25 states and the District of Columbia.
The DEA did announce that it will allow more places to grow marijuana for use in studies on medical conditions, such as chronic pain and epilepsy.
Right now, all marijuana available for research purposes in the United States is grown at the University of Mississippi. The university has an exclusive contract with the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to provide the nation's entire research supply, according to the DEA.
In any given year, NIDA sends shipments of marijuana to a small handful of researchers, usually eight or nine, but sometimes as many as 12, a DEA memo stated. Researchers must go through a detailed registration process to gain access to this pot.
The new decision also means doctors still can't get answers to the questions they regularly receive from patients regarding marijuana's clinical benefits.
"I am asked as a practicing doctor even in a rural area about medical marijuana use, and I want to make sure I can give patients advice that's evidence-based," said Dr. Robert Wergin, board chair of the American Academy of Family Physicians.
"We need those kinds of studies to help us give informed advice to our patients who ask about it now," he said.
Studies have shown that marijuana might help decrease chronic pain and nausea, ease seizures, improve the appetite or be useful in psychiatric treatment, Wergin and Bostwick said.
But none of those studies has been large-scale and a definitive clinical trial. The reason: marijuana's DEA drug status prevents scientists from using large quantities of the plant in medical research, Wergin and Bostwick said.
Both the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Neurology have come out in favor of loosening marijuana laws to allow for more research into its potential medical use.
Such research could result in medications derived from marijuana that would treat conditions without a "high," Wergin said.
For more on drug scheduling, visit the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.