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Reefer Madness 

The DEA is in denial about cannabis

The DEA's insistence that cannabis has no medical value is a case of reefer sadness.

The DEA's insistence that cannabis has no medical value is a case of reefer sadness.

Even though there is a metaphoric mountain of evidence that cannabis can treat several serious medical conditions, the Obama administration's Drug Enforcement Administration has again declined to loosen restrictions on the drug.

Currently, cannabis is treated the same as heroin and LSD under federal law, which states that cannabis has "no currently accepted medical use in the United States, a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse." And last week, the DEA affirmed that it believes this view of cannabis is correct. But most experts agree that all three of these statements are demonstrably false.

For example, scientific studies show that cannabis is effective in stopping the debilitating and often deadly seizures that characterize the worst kinds of childhood epilepsy. And there have been no deaths or other serious health problems attributable to cannabis use among the millions of people nationwide who use cannabis under the direction of their physicians. There is also scientific evidence showing that cannabis has a very low potential for abuse, far lower than alcohol and even coffee.

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The DEA says that, "Right now, the science doesn't support" loosening restrictions on cannabis. But Michael Collins of the Drug Policy Alliance, a nationwide group whose mission is to see that "The use and regulation of drugs are grounded in science," says that the DEA's decision "shows that the DEA continues to ignore research, and places politics above science." As usual, Oregon's Congressional champion of cannabis policy change, Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer, weighed in on the DEA decision, calling it "an outdated, failed approach" and "further evidence that the DEA doesn't get it." Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden echoed that sentiment in a similar statement.

Like many cannabis policy advocates, the DPA is essentially accusing the DEA of acting in bad faith. And indeed, the DEA seems to have created a legal trap to ensure that federal cannabis law cannot change. The key restrictions under the current law are a blanket prohibition on federal funding for cannabis research and a DEA monopoly on the supply of cannabis for scientific research, which effectively ensures that no research is done. So the DEA prohibits scientific research on cannabis while claiming that there is not enough research to change the restrictions on cannabis, creating a catch-22 for researchers and ensuring the legal status quo.

But the DEA did "throw a bone" to science, announcing that it will issue additional licenses to grow cannabis for research purposes. Currently, only the University of Mississippi is licensed to grow cannabis for research purposes. The change is similar to that in Oregon's cannabis legalization law, which also issues licenses to researchers to grow cannabis. However, the DEA did not make clear how many additional licenses it may issue.


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