A federal appeals court today ruled the federal Drug Enforcement Administration does not have to reconsider moving marijuana to a less-strict list of controlled substances – a significant defeat for those advocating for the drug’s medical use.
Marijuana is currently listed on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act – the most restrictive category for controlled substances, encompassing drugs defined as having a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use, and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision. Other drugs on that list include heroin and LSD, while methamphetamine is on the less-restrictive Schedule II.
The Coalition for Rescheduling Marijuana filed a rescheduling petition in 2002; that petition was unanswered until 2011, when the Drug Enforcement Administration denied it after advocates sued for unreasonable delay. This hearing is on the appeal of that denial.
Advocates claim the ban on marijuana is rooted in politics, not science, and that the National Institute on Drug Abuse has created a unique and unreasonable research approval process for the drug.
An appeals brief filed by Oakland-based Americans for Safe Access had argued the DEA has no “license to apply different criteria to marijuana than to other drugs, ignore critical scientific data, misrepresent social science research, or rely upon unsubstantiated assumptions, as the DEA has done in this case.”
But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled today that the DEA did adhere to its own rules, and so does not have to reconsider its ruling.
According to the appeals court, the DEA was following its own rules when it claimed that petitioners for rescheduling marijuana had failed to provide “adequate and well-controlled studies proving efficacy.” Although the petitioners had provided peer-reviewed research as to the medical benefits of marijuana, the DEA requires studies more in line with the specific trials required by the FDA.
“We defer to the agency’s interpretation of these regulations and find that substantial evidence supports its determination that such studies do not exist,” the court ruled today, later adding, “it appears that adequate and well-controlled studies are wanting not because they have been foreclosed but because they have not been completed.”
But Drug Policy Alliance senior staff attorney Tamar Todd said in a news release that advocates are stuck in a Catch-22.
“The DEA is saying that marijuana needs FDA approval to be removed from Schedule I, but at the same time they are obstructing that very research,” Todd said. “While there is a plethora of scientific evidence establishing marijuana’s safety and efficacy, the specific clinical trials necessary to gain FDA approval have long been obstructed by the federal government itself.”
Advocates say the federal government has obstructed medical marijuana research by maintaining a government monopoly on the supply of marijuana that can legally be used in research; marijuana remains the only Schedule I drug that DEA prohibits from being produced by private laboratories for scientific research. Although DEA has licensed multiple privately-funded manufacturers of all other Schedule I drugs, it permits just one facility, located at the University of Mississippi, to produce marijuana for research purposes.