The Feds Just Made a Huge, Disappointing Decision About Marijuana

Nugs of "Animal Cookie" are seen on a counter at Farma, a marijuana dispensary, in Portland, Oregon

Nugs of “Animal Cookie” are seen on a counter at Farma, a marijuana dispensary, in Portland, Oregon | Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

It was only a matter of time before the federal government made a move to address the marijuana legalization push happening in states across the country. Voters in four states have passed legalization laws so far, with several others prepping for other ballot initiatives during this November’s election. So far, the feds have been willing to sit by and let the experiment continue, which has given hope to marijuana backers nationwide that attitudes on Capitol Hill were shifting, along with just about everyone else’s.

But the DEA just levied their decision, and for marijuana advocates, it couldn’t be more disheartening.

Despite rumors that the federal government might reclassify marijuana and cannabis, the Drug Enforcement Agency has announced the drug will remain federally illegal as a Schedule 1 controlled substance. In an announcement denying a 2009 petition asking to reschedule it, the DEA said cannabis will remain prohibited due to the inherent dangers the drug possesses — despite evidence to the contrary.

That original 2009 petition asked that the government reclassify cannabis based on the fact that “1. Marijuana has accepted medical use in the United States; 2. Studies have shown that smoked marijuana has proven safety and efficacy; 3. Marijuana is safe for use under medical supervision; and 4. Marijuana does not have the abuse potential for placement in schedule I.”

But, in response, the DEA and Department of Health and Human Services responded by saying the following:

After gathering the necessary data, DEA requested a scientific and medical evaluation and scheduling recommendation from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). HHS concluded that marijuana has a high potential for abuse, has no accepted medical use in the United States, and lacks an acceptable level of safety for use even under medical supervision. Therefore, HHS recommended that marijuana remain in schedule I.

DEA: Marijuana to remain a Schedule 1 drug

Indoor Marijuana Grow Room

Marijuana | Source: iStock

It’s a disappointing and confounding response to the petition.

As many are aware, there are plenty of people who use cannabis in a medicinal capacity, and many medical professionals and pharmaceutical companies are championing the drug’s effectiveness against certain health problems. The federal government has even published research backing up cannabis’ ability to fight certain cancers.

As for the safety aspect of the DEA’s response, that’s still up in the air as well. While we’re still learning about the effects of marijuana use on adolescents, it’s obvious that using cannabis as a recreational drug is far less dangerous than using other, perfectly legal alternatives like alcohol or tobacco. To date, no one has been killed as a result of overdosing on marijuana, for example.

And when it comes to the potential for abuse, that’s another gray area that is still being untangled. Again, we know that other legal substances are addictive and readily abused by millions of people, but for some reason, this is a concern only being taken into consideration, it seems, when it comes to cannabis.

Clearly, there are a lot of issues with the DEA’s decision not to reclassify marijuana and remove it from the list of Schedule 1 drugs. But it’s not all that surprising. Prohibition has been in place for a long time and negative connotations with cannabis are deeply rooted in many Americans’ psyches. Though the numbers, however, do show that is changing fast.

What’s next for the cannabis legalization push?

medical cannabis

Medical cannabis | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The real question is this: What does it mean for the cannabis legalization push happening in states nationwide? That is unclear, but the DEA’s decision surely doesn’t inspire confidence. All the states that have legalized cannabis for recreational use so far — those being Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska — are still allowing their markets and industries to operate in defiance of federal law.

That also goes for all medical cannabis operations nationwide, of which half the states have allowed in varying capacities.

The simple fact is that we still don’t know how things are going to turn out. Though the Obama administration has allowed legalization efforts to push ahead at the state level, the next president could pull the plug on all state laws and use federal agencies to shut down any operation working with or in the cannabis trade. That would cost states millions in tax revenues, entrepreneurs and business owners millions in losses, and of course, leave tens of thousands without jobs.

If there is one good thing to come out of the DEA’s announcement, it’s that there will be a relaxing of laws related to research. Soon, more institutions will be allowed to grow and study cannabis for scientific research purposes, which should help address some of the DEA’s major concerns outlined in its brief.

Even so, the feds’ denial of the reclassification petition is a tough break. But attitudes are quickly changing the other way. What happens in November will have some serious sway, and we’ll have to wait and see what role the DEA’s decree ultimately has on the legalization effort.

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