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Forcing the feds' hand on marijuana [Blowback]

March 07, 2013|By Amanda Reiman
  • A bill in the House would reclassify marijuana to allow for more research.
A bill in the House would reclassify marijuana to allow for more research. (Ed Andrieski / Associated…)

In opposing HR 689, a bill by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) to federally reclassify marijuana as most other legal prescription drugs and remove oversight from the Drug Enforcement Administration and give it to the states, The Times states in its Feb. 28 editorial that it would be better to regulate cannabis at the federal level than have a patchwork of conflicting state laws.

The Times' reasoning in opposing the bill, co-sponsored by 12 representatives from both sides of the aisle, is shortsighted. In fact, it's virtually impossible to regulate marijuana as other prescription drugs because of the restrictions placed on researching cannabis, the very kind of research that the Food and Drug Administration requires to bring a drug to market.

Since 1970, the Controlled Substances Act has upheld marijuana as one of the most dangerous drugs available, defining it as having a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use. This stance has been consistently challenged by the medical research community, patient groups and other advocates in addiction medicine. Underlying their complaints is that marijuana's Schedule I classification, which places it alongside heroin, defines it as being too dangerous for most research. Consequently, almost no research on marijuana's medical benefits gets funded, so there's practically no way to find the evidence that would result in marijuana's reclassification.

Marijuana has been caught in this catch-22 for more than 40 years. Blumenauer's bill would address this by moving marijuana out of Schedule I, thereby freeing up and funding researchers to do the kind of studies that would result in cannabis' wider availability. Marijuana research to date has not been able to move beyond animal models and pre-clinical research because of this barrier, and the legislation would enable scientists to use the plant in their research on marijuana as a treatment for cancer, multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder and myriad other illness where even limited research has shown promise.

But Blumenauer's bill is about more than advancing research; it would also protect access. Recently, Cathy Jordan, a woman from Florida who uses marijuana as a treatment for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, and who is the namesake for a medical marijuana law proposed in Florida, had her 23 marijuana plants confiscated by federal authorities mere hours after her name was linked to the legislation. HR 689 would protect patients like Jordan by stopping the federal government, which is essentially statutorily prohibited from recognizing marijuana's medical value, from undermining states that wish to take a different approach. This conflict makes HR 689 not only necessary for conducting research but vital for patients in medical marijuana states and in states considering such legislation.

In a perfect world, the government would work with the states and researchers to develop and implement an evidence-based federal medical marijuana program, similar to programs that have been developed in Israel, Canada and the Netherlands. But the states have largely been left to fend for themselves; in many cases, they have to fend off the feds. Still, even in this environment of murkiness and contradictions, many states plus the District of Columbia have developed highly regulated medical marijuana programs, complete with licensing and tax structures, oversight committees within state government, quality control and unionized labor. California has not yet achieved this level of state oversight, which has resulted in conflict with Washington. HR 689 would strengthen existing state programs and provide guidance for new ones while protecting patients and providers.

Until the federal government is ready to take an honest look at medical marijuana, we must protect state programs for safe access. HR 689 not only affords protection to the states, it finally forces the federal government to take a real look at the science behind marijuana. After 40 years of trying the "old" way, patients cannot afford to wait. Allowing states the ability to regulate, and scientists the ability to conduct research, is the right way forward on medical marijuana.

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Amanda Reiman is the California policy director for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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