A Cycle of Restriction
The heart of the issue lies in marijuana’s classification as a Schedule 1 controlled substance. This scheduling automatically negates any research into the benefits of marijuana because the scheduling itself professes that marijuana has no medical benefit. In the past, the DEA’s scheduling of marijuana was quietly accepted. However, with polls estimating anywhere between a 60% – 80% majority of Americans supporting the legalization of marijuana for medicinal uses, an unwavering federal stance runs the risk of looking increasingly out of touch. Hudak and Wallack point out the conundrum that opposes researchers: a Schedule 1 restriction prevents research into the medical benefits of marijuana while a lack of research is the primary reason that cannabis remains glued to its Schedule 1 categorization. A veritable snake eating its own tail, the Brooking Institute paper echoes the plight of researchers countrywide who want to break the cycle and finally take an unbiased crack at scientifically determining the pros and cons of cannabis.
Failed Attempts at Lifting Research on the Benefits of Marijuana
Hudak and Wallack are not the first people to speak out against what they view as an archaic approach to an issue that demands clinical research. Explorations into the benefits of marijuana have long been hampered by the DEA’s scheduling of the drug, which was designated a Schedule 1 controlled substance in 1972. Since that time, the federal government has received 4 separate petitions to re-examine the scheduling of cannabis but these requests have largely fallen on deaf ears. The DEA officially denied 3 of the submitted petitions, ignoring the recommendation of federal judges in some instances. In 2011, politicians Christine Gregoire and current presidential hopeful Lincoln Chafee submitted a 4th petition, but the DEA has yet to issue a response. However, the previous 3 petitions were under review for a minimum of 6 years. One of the petitions was scrutinized for a lengthy 20 year period before being denied.
The Quickest Ways to Lift Restrictions
Recognizing the ineffectiveness of petitions, Hudak and Wallack used their paper to propose alternative means of lifting restrictions on medical marijuana research. Recognizing the potential in purported benefits of marijuana, senators Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and presidential hopeful Rand Paul drafted the CARERS Act of 2015 which, among other pro-medical marijuana measures, would reclassify cannabis as a Schedule 2 controlled substance. Hudak and Wallack propose that such an action from Congress could be the fastest way to bypass the harsh restrictions on medical marijuana research.
Their paper also points to presidential executive actions that could allow for easier access to medical marijuana for research purposes. By order of the DEA, all samples of medical marijuana come from a single lab located at the University of Mississippi. This can lead to lengthy delays on requests for research specimens, often spanning years, dealing a critical blow to any research endeavors. The president may be able to issue an executive order to override this monopoly on research specimens and thus allow for unhindered analysis of the benefits of marijuana for medical purposes.
Along the same lines, the president can also institute measures that would untangle the spaghetti ball of regulations and licenses that the FDA requires potential researchers to follow. Researchers can often be deterred by the daunting obstacle course of hoops that stand between them and sanctioned research.
The president also has the authority to widen the Compassionate Use Program, a federal arrangement that distributes medical cannabis to patients that rely on the medical benefits of marijuana. Though this program is in full effect, a mere 4 patients make up the roster on the Compassionate Use Program.
Earlier in October 2015, federal judge Charles R. Breyer ruled against the DEA in their persecution of law-abiding patients and citizens in states that had legalized marijuana. Incidents like this prove that a continued outcry for research into the true benefits of marijuana is only growing in volume. Hudak and Wallack succinctly bring to light several important considerations in their paper for the Brookings Institute regarding potentially outdated restrictions on medical marijuana research. It’s now down to the question of whether the federal government will listen.