by Jon Gettman

Jon Gettman is a long time contributor to HIGH TIMES. A former National Director of NORML, Jon has a Ph.D. in public policy and regional economic development and consults with attorneys, advocates, and non-profits on cannabis related research and public policy issues. On October 8, 2002, along with a coalition of organizations, he filed a new petition to have cannabis rescheduled under federal law. This column will track that petition's progress.

October 8, 2002
The Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis, the largest coalition in the history of drug policy reform, has launched an extensive legal and scientific challenge to the Drug Enforcement Administration's prohibition of medical cannabis use in the United States. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) asserts that cannabis has no medical value and that public support for medical marijuana use is based on misperceptions about its safety and effectiveness. The DEA also asserts that cannabis has a high potential for abuse similar to that of cocaine and heroin. The DEA makes these claims not only to justify their refusal to let cannabis be used medically, but also to justify the arrest and harassment of patients and caregivers, both in states that have given legal approval to marijuana's medical use and in the rest of the nation.

The DEA has never provided comprehensive scientific evidence to support their self-serving accusations about the medical use of cannabis; they claim these assertions are true simply because they, the DEA, say they are true, as if the laws of the United States gives them the exclusive power to dictate what are and what are not the true findings of scientific research.

The laws of the United States do not give the DEA this sort of authority. In fact, the laws of the United States obligate the DEA to defer to the scientific record when it comes to the medical use of cannabis, and they further obligate the DEA to expedite medical access to cannabis. Instead of fulfilling these obligations the DEA instead has a longstanding policy of obstructing the access of patients in need.

The tool with which to force the DEA to recognize and fulfill their statutory obligation to facilitate medical access to cannabis is an obscure administrative regulatory process know as "rescheduling". As part of this process the DEA is required to request a medical and scientific report from the Department of Health and Human Services evaluating the scientific basis for several key issues about cannabis: the acceptance of its medical use, its safety for use, its relative dependence liability, and its relative abuse potential compared to other drugs under its control. Then the process requires the DEA to re-evaluate, and if it can, re-justify its prohibition on medical access to cannabis. In other words, the purpose of this process is to force the DEA to either prove its assertions about cannabis or make cannabis medically available to patients in need.

The administrative petition being filed by the Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis is a comprehensive review of recent scientific literature regarding each of these important issues. Numerous patient advocacy and drug policy reform organizations, along with this author and HIGH TIMES, have joined together in this Coalition to mount a sustained and comprehensive challenge to the DEA's prohibition on access to medical cannabis and refute the federal government's ongoing misinformation campaign about cannabis and the scientific record. Participating in the Coalition are the American Alliance for Medical Cannabis, Americans for Safe Access, California NORML, the Drug Policy Forum of Texas, Iowans for Medical Cannabis, the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Cooperative, the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws, New Mexicans for Compassionate Use, the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative, Patients Out of Time as well as other interested individuals.

According to the petition: "Key developments in the assessment of marijuana's medical use include: acceptance of marijuana's medical use by health care professionals; recognition of marijuana as a medicine of last resort by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences; recognition of the therapeutic properties of cannabinoids by the scientific community and health care providers; the emergence of basic research explaining the mode of action of cannabis-based medicines; the emergence of clinical research on the medical use of cannabis; and acceptance of marijuana's medical use by eight states. These developments contradict the [current] classification of marijuana as having no accepted medical use in the United States.

"There is also a growing consensus among scientists and health care providers that in lieu of alternatives marijuana is an adequate delivery system for cannabinoid drugs, and more specifically a consensus that data on the medical efficacy of THC and other cannabinoids drugs is sufficient to recognize marijuana's accepted medical use in the United States."

A prior attempt to force marijuana's rescheduling by this author and HIGH TIMES was rejected by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Court of Appeals decided that petitioners were not sufficiently injured to have standing to challenge DEA's flawed interpretation of the scientific record in federal court. In other words, the U.S. Court of Appeals has held that only those who are actually injured by DEA's refusal to reschedule cannabis have standing to submit DEA's potential actions in this area to judicial review by the federal courts.

The Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis was organized to meet this requirement should DEA refuse yet again to satisfy their obligations under federal law with respect to patient access to medical cannabis. "This petition is being filed by a coalition of interested parties including non-profit organizations and individual citizens. The membership of these organizations and these individual citizens have various interests in the appropriate scheduling of cannabis under federal law, including but not limited to an interest in legal access to cannabis for therapeutic use based on existing medical conditions."

The Coalition's petition argues that "in their review of the Gettman petition neither DEA nor HHS gave any consideration to marijuana's accepted medical use in the United States, its safety for use, its relative abuse potential or its relative dependence liability, as called for by the Controlled Substances Act (CSA)." This new cannabis rescheduling petition addresses all of these issues with new scientific findings that have not been reviewed in prior proceedings.

While this Cannabis Rescheduling Petition has been in development for over six months, its filing marks the beginning of a sustained challenge to the prohibition of medical cannabis use. The Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis will continue to organize support for this petition from advocacy groups, patients, and others to increase the pressure on the DEA to fulfill their legal obligation to reschedule cannabis and ensure medical access to patients in need.

Regardless of the outcome of this petition, its filing has other important value for the medical cannabis movement. The DEA and opponents of medical cannabis continually claim there is no scientific evidence to support the positions of the reform movement. But of course there is a mountain of evidence to support the therapeutic use of cannabis, and now a comprehensive scientific case has been compiled not just for the government to review, but for the public to review as well. We've met the challenge to provide the scientific and legal justification for our position. Now we'll see if the DEA can meet the challenge to justify theirs.