Last August, the DEA managed a remarkable two-fer: in one fell swoop, the nation’s loyal federal drug police quashed while delivering new hope.
Judging by what’s happened since, the nation’s loyal drug police may also have played us all for fools, all while maintaining the mendacious game of circular logic that’s keeping marijuana federally illegal.
On August 12, 2016, the DEA formally rejected a petition that would have seen marijuana reclassified from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, the official government list of the world’s most dangerous drugs. The reason, acting DEA chief Chuck Rosenberg said at the time, was a lack of scientific evidence demonstrating marijuana had any medical value.
Placing cannabis in Schedule II, as the petition requested, would not have legalized marijuana, but it would have allowed doctors to prescribe the drug. It would also have made marijuana easier for scientists to study—and, presumably, discover the very evidence which, despite almost 50 years of federal prohibition and a DEA monopoly on research-grade cannabis, other researchers have managed to find.
The paucity of hard data on cannabis is near-universally acknowledged.
It’s also annoying that key U.S. senators and members of Congress are ostensibly in charge of the DEA’s budget, which was probably why the DEA softened the blow by announcing that it would also entertain applications from anyone interested in growing research-grade cannabis for the government.
This was a breakthrough. The DEA is going to allow more weed to be grown in the United States! A milestone for drug-policy reform wonks, but also for science.
For almost 50 years, all the marijuana used in American research projects has come from one source—a garden at the University of Mississippi, which has had an exclusive government contract to grow research-ready weed since 1968.
Scientists say the limited supply renders large-scale research impossible.
Scientists also say the monopoly means “research-grade” marijuana is worthless.
As researcher Dr. Sue Sisley complained to PBS in the spring, the Ole Miss marijuana is brown, moldy and looks more like stale catnip left out in the sun than it does cannabis flower sold in recreational dispensaries in five states.
But now, nearly a year after the DEA’s announcement, nothing has changed.
As the Cannifornian reported, Ole Miss is still the only source of government-approved research marijuana. The DEA has received 25 applications from would-be growers—none of whom the agency chose to identify by name—no new grow licenses have been granted. And there’s no word as to when the DEA will grant a new license—if they do at all.
According to experts, the total lack of progress is proof positive that the DEA’s new, accommodating stance was a sham, a front and a hustle.
“They were clearly trying to blunt the impact of the rescheduling denial,” said John Hudak, a marijuana expert at the Brookings Institution.
And there were hints of campaign-level politics: With cannabis legalization on the ballot in five states on Election Day, here was the DEA making a false move toward the reform that a majority of Americans want.
This means that marijuana research is not only effectively stalled in America, it may also be worthless.
The DEA claims that it never turns down a qualified request. That may be true, but it’s a deceptive statement, as it’s also true that it is very difficult to be qualified to study marijuana in the first place.
Labs that handle Schedule I substances are subject to rigorous security requirements, and most government-funded research institutions steer clear from seeking marijuana for fear of risking that funding. As a result, the DEA receives fewer than 15 applications to study marijuana a year, according to a NIDA spokesperson.
And as Sisley revealed, there’s also a fundamental problem with most marijuana research: it’s conducted on cannabis that bears little resemblance to actual, real-world marijuana.
“The levels of THC and CBD in cannabis that is now available to researchers are much lower than those of cannabis sold in dispensaries around the country,” University of California Irvine researcher Dr. Daniele Piomelli told the Cannifornian. “This creates a big problem: how relevant to the real world are the studies we can do now?”
We can provide a short answer: They might not be relevant at all.
Ole Miss’s “high-THC” cannabis tops out at about 13 percent THC. The “high CBD” cannabis has about the same amount of CBD. This is half as strong as some flower found in dispensaries—and doesn’t have anywhere near the same terpenes, or other myriad of cannabinoids.
What does dispensary pot do to your brain and body? Science cannot scientifically say.
Good thing the DEA is here to inform us that marijuana remains a public menace.