The Drug Enforcement Agency signaled on Thursday that it plans a dramatic shift in the way the United States conducts research on marijuana. The move is expected to significantly expand both the scope and specificity of scientific study on the drug.
In a statement touting "several marijuana- related actions," the DEA announced that the University of Mississippi will no longer be the sole licensed grower of research marijuana in the country. Rather, the agency explained, "DEA’s new policy will allow additional entities to apply to become registered with DEA so that they may grow and distribute marijuana for FDA-authorized research purposes."
The University of Mississippi's monopoly on marijuana production has reportedly resulted in significant delays for institutions interested in exploring the drug's medical application. The new policy will address that scarcity, and signals a new phase in widespread marijuana research.
In other words to the narrow research pipeline of government-approved pot is about to get a whole lot wider.
In its release, the agency stated that:
This change illustrates DEA’s commitment to working together with the [Food and Drug Administration] and [National Institute on Drug Abuse] to facilitate research concerning marijuana and its components. DEA currently has 350 individuals registered to conduct research on marijuana and its components. Notably, DEA has approved every application for registration submitted by researchers seeking to use NIDA-supplied marijuana to conduct research that [Health and Human Services] determined to be scientifically meritorious.
"It will create a supply of research-grade marijuana that is diverse," said John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, explained to The New York Times. "But more importantly, it will be competitive and you will have growers motivated to meet the demand of researchers."
The DEA's announcement wasn't all good news for pot advocates, though.
Among the "several" developments the agency plans to move forward on is a reaffirmation of marijuana's classification as a schedule 1 substance under the Controlled Substances Act. For the time being, at least, pot will remain exactly as illegal as it has been in the eyes of the federal government.
The affirmation comes in response to two petitions to the agency to reclassify marijuana. In a letter sent to the petitioners, DEA acting administrator Chuck Rosenberg explained that the unwillingness to reclassify is not a statement about the relative danger of a particular substance. He wrote:
A substance is placed in Schedule I if it has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse. These criteria are set by statute.
Schedule I includes some substances that are exceptionally dangerous and some that are less dangerous (including marijuana, which is less dangerous than some substances in other schedules). That strikes some people as odd, but the criteria for inclusion in Schedule I is not relative danger.
In that sense, drug scheduling is unlike the Saffir-Simpson scale or the Richter scale. Movement up those two scales indicates increasing severity and damage (for hurricanes and earthquakes, respectively); not so with drug scheduling. It is best not to think of drug scheduling as an escalating "danger'' scale - rather, specific statutory criteria (based on medical and scientific evidence) determine into which schedule a substance is placed.
In its release the DEA explained that, "based on the legal standards in the CSA, marijuana remains a schedule I controlled substance because it does not meet the criteria for currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, there is a lack of accepted safety for its use under medical supervision, and it has a high potential for abuse."
Still, there's reason to be hopeful about the future of marijuana in the United States. Expanded access to research-grade pot will serve to significantly expand medicinal marijuana studies moving forward—an expansion that could someday contribute to the drug being reclassified within the CSA.