comments_image Comments

Blocking Science: How Congress and the DEA Have Thwarted Official Research on Pot for 40 Years

If you're trying to limit science, you probably know you're losing the argument.

Photo Credit: AFP Photo


Ever wonder why, despite millions of personal anecdotes about pot's healing effects, there is a stark lack of government-approved, clinical studies to back up that human experience? The research gap is no accident. Cannabis is the only illicit substance with an extra set of governmental requirements specifically intended to prevent independent study.

While medical marijuana patients in nearly half of the states swear by the herb’s medicinal properties, prohibitionists can conveniently point their fingers at that lack of scientific evidence whenever cornered by a pro-legalization argument. Stacks of research have affirmed the extraordinary potentials of the cannabis plant, but none received the official approval of the U.S. government.

Hiding behind these outdated prerequisites, the US Drug Enforcement Administration has effectively blocked government approval of all independent scientific studies on pot for four decades. Created in the '70s as part of Richard Nixon's Comprehensive Drug Abuse and Prevention Act of 1970, the DEA, a policing agency tasked with enforcing national drug laws, has the authority to decide how each drug is restricted under the law and whether/where it is produced. This has allowed the DEA to restrict the production of cannabis allowed for federal research to the point of near non-existence.

In a new report titled “ The DEA: Four Decades of Impeding and Rejecting Science,” the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance teamed up with the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) to point out the many ways in which the law enforcement agency stifles science.

“This concerns me greatly as someone who has studied marijuana and given thousands of doses of the drug,” said psychiatry professor Carl Hart during a June 11 teleconference about the DEA report.  

Hart pointed out the existence of government-funded studies showing “some potential for marijuana” to help people with serious illnesses, for example HIV and AIDS. “The notion that the DEA is has not acknowledged this and thought about reconsidering the scheduling of marijuana just seems to be against the scientific evidence,” he said. “It seems to be against what we’re trying to do in terms of having a society that relies on empirical evidence to base our decisions.”

The report also identifies a "regulatory Catch-22" in which the DEA is exceedingly quick to prohibit certain drugs (MDMA, synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic stimulants) but takes its time responding to evidence that it should reconsider the strict classification of certain drugs. For example, the report notes that the three times the agency has been presented with a petition to reschedule marijuana, it has taken between five and 16 years to respond. 

Two Recommendations

The DPA-MAPS report makes two recommendations:

First: Remove the DEA’s power to classify drugs and transfer it to “another agency, perhaps even a non-governmental entity such as the National Academy of Sciences.”

The DEA has the power to decide which category of regulation each drug falls under. Despite the fact that it is legal in two states and has never killed anyone via overdose, cannabis is listed under the most strict drug classification, “Schedule I,” with heroin and meth.

Jag Davies of the DPA said the report is the first time the organization flat-out called for this change.

“We haven’t really articulated before, I don’t think, that the drug classification process should be removed completely from the DEA,” he said. “We don’t get into specifics there, it’s a new idea so we’re just putting it out there. I think, obviously, that will take some time to happen.”

The second recommendation: Force the DEA to end “the government’s unjustifiable monopoly” on the only supply of marijuana legally approved for use in research. As the report notes, “No other Schedule 1 drug is available from only a single governmental source for research purposes."