Blocking Science: How Congress and the DEA Have Thwarted Official Research on Pot for 40 Years
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Hiding behind these outdated prerequisites, the US Drug Enforcement Administration has effectively blocked government approval of all independent scientific studies on pot for four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.
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."
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has the only federally approved pot supply, so anyone interested in Food and Drug Administration-regulated research has to get their pot from NIDA. To do so requires breaking through a so-far impenetrable web of red tape. MAPS, a nonprofit pharmaceutical company dedicated to studying the potential medical uses of psychedelics and cannabis, has tried for decades. The protocols for its University of Arizona study on cannabis’ ability to treat PTSD in veterans have been approved by the FDA and Public Health Service—hurdles reserved for cannabis and no other substance. But the DEA has the final say on whether MAPS can obtain NIDA weed, and so far it has refused to allow it. The DEA has the authority to license alternate marijuana suppliers and create additional sources of research-grade pot, but it has not.
“The second recommendation is a much more practical thing that the president could do immediately,” said Davies.
Davies said as an organization dedicated to reforming the expensive, Nixon-era war on drugs laws, which keep prisons filled with nonviolent offenders and unfairly target minorities, the DEA has been on the the DPA’s radar for some time. He said the report explains how, rather than basing its decisions on scientific evidence as it is supposed to do, the DEA has worked to protect its own funding.
“Frankly it’s easier a lot of times to make low-level drug arrests than it is to actually go out and solve other, perhaps more serious, crimes,” he said. “We need to make an earnest commitment to putting science first in drug policies. There’s been a lot of new rhetoric from the Obama administration about science-based policy and—particularly in drug policy—implementing a health-based approach. The reality is... the fundamental approach is still based on criminalization and not on what would be best for public health, and the DEA’s continuing obstruction of marijuana research is really the clearest example of this.”
Silencing Doctors, Turning Heads in Congress
As Rick Doblin, director and founder of MAPS, and Ethan Nadelmann, director of the DPA, put it in a recent column: “It’s increasingly clear that entrusting decisions involving medical science to the DEA is akin to leaving the fox in charge of the henhouse. And what’s most striking is how little scrutiny the DEA has faced from Congress or other federal overseers.”
But heads in Congress are starting to turn, thanks in part to the DPA-MAPS report. Congress members Steve Cohen (D-TN) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) attended the June 11 teleconference to discuss the report. Both of them recently participated in a historic 218 to 189 vote in the House of Representatives to include a pro-medical marijuana amendment to a larger Department of Justice funding bill. If passed by the Senate, the amendment will effectively restrict the DEA from using any Department of Justice funds to go after medical marijuana operations in states where they’re legal.
Rohrabacher co-authored the bipartisan amendment alongside Sam Farr (D-CA). “The first thing you have to understand is those people who are basically calling for a limit on any scientific endeavor are usually the ones who understand they’ve got a weak argument,” Rohrabacher said of the DEA during the teleconference.
He shared the story of a man who had come into his office an hour prior to discuss his son, a military veteran. Following an explosion in Iraq, his son was experiencing “out-of-control brain seizures.” A doctor at the VA hospital asked to meet him in private because he was afraid to discuss the option of cannabis medicine on VA grounds.
“And this young man, this veteran who was having seizures in the brain now hasn't had one for a year,” Rohrabacher said. “And the fact that this VA doctor felt he couldn't even honestly give his advice to a veteran who was going through brain seizures says there's something really fundamentally wrong with the way things are working, and we need to change that and prove exactly what properties marijuana has, both negative and positive.”
VA doctors aren’t the only ones facing DEA intimidation when it comes to cannabis. As Cohen pointed out in the teleconference, DEA agents in Massachusetts are threatening to revoke the DEA licenses of doctors who would advise burgeoning medical marijuana dispensaries.
Cohen said it's wrong for the DEA to force physicians to choose between having access to prescribe certain drugs or advising pot dispensaries.
He continued, “Its the heavy hand of the law, it’s intimidation, and medical dispensaries need doctors to advise them,” he said. “There’s no question that the dosage of marijuana is important. We’ve all read about people taking edibles in higher quantities. Doctors would suggest to the dispensaries they tell the patients what levels of marijuana they could take and how it will affect them and give [dispensaries] some good advice. We should encourage doctors to be involved with medical dispensaries so that they are medical dispensaries.”
Of the DEA report, Cohen said, “We need to have the research to protect the American public....Theoretically [the DEA’s] function is to protect the American public relating to drugs, and they should allow research and encourage research, but they haven't done that.”
Life or Death Situation
A real-life example of who would benefit from the government ending its science blockade came during the teleconference when Sean Azzariti, a military veteran and the first person to purchase legal recreational pot in Colorado, shared his story.
After serving in the marine corps for six years, including two tours in Iraq, Sean Azzariti was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and his doctors prescribed what he calls an “exorbitant amount of prescription pills.” At one time Azzariti was taking a heavy daily dose of the anxiety medications xanax and klonopin, along with adderall (a drug developed to treat narcolepsy, which his doctors said would counterbalance the first two). Every night he was taking the depression drug trazodone. The cocktail of heavy medications “turned me into a shell of the person I am,” he said.
Azzariti’s story is not unusual. An average of 22 veterans commit suicide each day according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, due largely to PTSD. Often prescription pills have an unintended effect of intensifying their feelings of depression and numbness. The life-saving difference for Azzariti, he said, was that he started using cannabis to treat his PTSD symptoms, eventually weaning himself off the prescription meds.