Why It Matters that the Feds Are Opening the Doors for Weed Science
By removing infuriating roadblocks, the federal government may have just ushered in a golden age for green research.
The United States government has once again renewed its commitment to busting people for having weed, affirming this week that it will classify cannabis as a Schedule I drug. As you're probably aware, that puts marijuana in the company of heroin, bath salts, and LSD—all substances that are much scarier than weed, according to basic common sense.
But according to acting Drug Enforcement Administration chief Chuck Rosenberg, we should set aside scariness as a factor when assessing the logic of drug scheduling. In his statement on the decision Thursday, he said the drug schedule shouldn't be imagined as "an escalating 'danger' scale." The Schedule I classification just means that weed "has no currently accepted medical use," or at least not one that's recognized by the federal government.
That conclusion, based on an analysis by the Food and Drug Administration, appears to have driven the second half of the DEA's announcement: That it would remove existing roadblocks to marijuana research by allowing additional entities to grow weed for scientific study.
"If the scientific understanding about marijuana changes—and it could change—then the decision [on marijuana classification] could change," Rosenberg wrote.
To find out a little more about what this decision means for the future of research, I got in touch with Mark Kleiman, a veteran drug policy commentator who directs the crime and justice program at New York University's Marron Institute of Urban Management. He told us a lot about the current state of marijuana research, and why despite the DEA's latest decision, marijuana probably won't be a Schedule I drug much longer. Below is our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
VICE: So what should be our takeaway be from the DEA's decision this week? What does it mean about the drug scheduling system?
Mark Kleiman: It says if a drug has a medical use, then it goes in Schedules II through V, depending on how dangerous it is, which makes reasonable sense. And if it has no accepted medical use, and is highly dangerous, then it goes in Schedule I, and [the DEA] simply has no logical place for a drug that's not as dangerous as, say, heroin, but also doesn't have a currently accepted medical use. That's a logical gap in the law—there's no place to put that.
I'm pleased that they did the right thing on research availability, which I think is a much more important issue.
How is marijuana research going to change after this?
Up until now, there have been two barriers: One is that in order to get research cannabis, you had to go through a special process, because the [exclusive] license that the University of Mississippi had to grow cannabis only [allowed it] to sell directly to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
If somebody was gonna get [marijuana] for research purposes, they had to get it from NIDA. There was no way you could just buy it. So that's been changed. They're going to allow people to apply for licenses to manufacture [marijuana] and sell it to anybody [the DEA] approves of as a buyer.
The other thing is that the University of Mississippi produced only a limited range of products. Any 15-year-old boy had better access to research cannabis than any research scientist.
What were those product limitations?
No extracts as far as I know, but also relatively narrow range of plant varieties. There are probably a couple of hundred cannabinoids. And the different plants produce very different ratios of those cannabinoids.
What might the effects of opening up research on marijuana? What can we expect to see if, or when, a bunch of scientific studies start coming out about its effects?
We might even learn something more about the risks than we now know. Here's a simple question: Do people who smoke high potency cannabis have more emergency room visits than people who smoke low potency cannabis? The obvious answer is yes, but I can't actually show you a paper that says yes.
More people could use that [kind of] research. When [I was] working for the Washington [State] Liquor and Cannabis Board, they said, "You gotta put a warning label on the high ratio stuff", and I said, "OK, tell us what the key ratio is." We went to the scientific literature: it's not there. So my slogan is, we need to know as much about cannabis as Pillsbury knows about brownie mix.
Do you think we'll also get more definitive information on the relative health risks of different smoking methods?
This will get us closer, and that will be a good thing.
Years ago, [the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies] wanted to do a study of whether vaporizers produce less carcinogens than joints—not even with human test subjects, just to test for stuff that came out of the end of the vaporizer. They asked for 10 grams of cannabis to do it with. It took them five years, and the final answer was no.
What does this mean for cannabidiol (CBD) research?
Epidiolex [a purified cannabis extract used to treat epilepsy] will be probably be approved this fall. I believe it's true that if [the FDA] approves a plant derivative, a plant extract, they'll have to de-schedule the plant as the feedstock.
So you're saying the government is probably going to change marijuana's schedule classification anyway, even after this latest decision? How does that work?
If something's Schedule I, it's contraband—nobody may possess Schedule I material except for research. So opium, for example, is not an accepted medicine in the US. But how do you make morphine? You take opium and extract morphine from it. So if opium were Schedule I, all those pharmaceutical manufacturers would be breaking the law. [Opium is a Schedule II drug because] of the Schedule II extract that's made from it.
So I think, when Epidiolex is approved, that would automatically down-schedule the plant.
[Editor's Note: Drug policy experts are divided over whether a decision on CBD would force the feds' hand on marijuana scheduling. Some experts we spoke to agreed with Kleiman; others were more skeptical.
"[If] the FDA, or the DEA in its own right, decided to accept the medical value of [CBD], but reject the medical value of THC, they would be able to do that," said John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who researches marijuana policy. "I think the federal government would find a way to thread the needle."]
Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.