The DEA’s announcement last Thursday that it doesn’t plan to change marijuana’s status as a Schedule I drug left plenty of Coloradans surprised and disappointed. Schedule I drugs, after all, are considered to have no medical value.
But a secondary part of the announcement, which went largely unremarked, may actually be a boon to state medical marijuana researchers — and some experts say that re-categorization isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, anyway.
That marijuana will continue to share the Schedule I label with drugs like heroin and LSD, especially while drugs like cocaine and meth are relegated to Schedule II, may strike some as odd. But the scheduling system has more to do with research than with legality and enforcement.
The purpose of the scheduling system is to serve as a rubric to determine how stringently the DEA should limit access to a drug and its supply. Marijuana’s classification in Schedule I means that the government’s supply of it is heavily guarded. To be in Schedule I, a drug must have a high potential for abuse and have no medical value.
So the DEA doesn’t actually think that marijuana and heroin are equally dangerous, or that cocaine is safer than marijuana. Marijuana has just been deemed as having a high potential for abuse and no medical value (qualities shared by LSD and heroin), whereas drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine are often used in medical research and also have a potential for abuse. Cocaine use is, in fact, punished more severely than marijuana.
John Hudak, a senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution and a national expert on marijuana policy and reform, told The Independent that the impact of a rescheduling on our state would be minimal at most.
“It really has no effect on Colorado,” Hudak said. “It will not impact their adult-use market, will not impact the medical marijuana market. Colorado’s system still remains illegal under federal law, which would also be true under Schedule II.”
But Hudak added that the DEA’s second announcement — the end of the monopoly on research-grade marijuana production — could affect Colorado’s marijuana industry, specifically the quality and diversity of research people can conduct into the drug’s potential as medicine.
“The only people who might be impacted would be universities and other research institutions,” Hudak said. “[They] can now apply to have one of the contracts given by [The National Institute on Drug Abuse] .”
Prior to Thursday’s announcement, the National Institute on Drug Abuse had what’s called a “single-producer mandate,” which meant only one institution, the University of Mississippi, was approved to grow marijuana for research purposes. The DEA’s latest announcement has relaxed those rules so that other facilities can apply to grow research-use cannabis.
Ken Gershman, MD, Manager of the Medical Marijuana Research Grant Program at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, affirmed that the end of the production monopoly was good news for researchers. But he cautioned that many applicants will still be ensnared in bureaucratic tangles, and that the real challenge is in finding funding for research on marijuana.
“Nothing happens quickly in the marijuana realm,” Gershman said. “Nobody who is currently doing anything that is contrary to federal law can apply for a license to grow. The only institutions that would be eligible would have to be neutral, like universities.”
Some Colorado universities currently receive funding for marijuana research from the state, but Gershman said that support is far from reliable. According to Gershman, those studies are one-time only, and the department has to get the legislature’s approval for them to continue.
He’s not confident that they will secure that approval in the future. When asked about future measures to provide funding, Gershman said he wasn’t aware of any enthusiasm from legislators.
He added that the National Institute of Health funds many medical research projects in the country, but it has been reluctant to dip its toe in the pot pool. “They haven’t been terribly interested in researching the medical benefits [of marijuana],” Gershman said.
Still, Hudak is optimistic about the possibility of expanding production beyond just the University of Mississippi. More facilities producing marijuana means better, more diverse research.
“The current supply from NIDA is limited in terms of quality, potency, composition,” Hudak said. “If you’re a researcher who wants to do a certain study, you have to work within the bounds of what the NIDA monopoly can give you. Opening that up to more producers gives you more ability to diversify the product.”
Hudak emphasized that residents of places like Colorado, which have operated with marijuana legalization for several years, know just how many varieties of marijuana products need to be evaluated.
“You go into a dispensary in Denver and you can find just about any combination of cannabinoids out there,” Hudak said. “If you want the research to reflect what’s happening on the ground, you’ve got to reflect that diversity.”
Photo credit: Cannabis Culture, Creative Commons, Flickr