The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has denied petitions filed five years ago by two former governors and a New Mexico psychiatric nurse practitioner requesting that the DEA reschedule marijuana from a Schedule I substance, according to documents filed with the Federal Register today. But the agency did decide to end the monopoly on research into the medical benefits of the drug — a move applauded by the campaign of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
There is no word yet on when the DEA might consider rescheduling marijuana. But despite an earlier promise by the agency to make an announcement in the first half of 2016, sources now say that the agency has decided to hold off on any decision for this year, as Westword reported last week.
While the DEA made no move on rescheduling, it did announce that it will be expanding the number of places allowed to grow marijuana for research purposes. Currently, the University of Mississippi holds an exclusive contract with the National Institute on Drug Abuse and has been the only facility federally licensed to grow marijuana.
"The DEA and the FDA continue to believe that scientifically valid and well-controlled clinical trials conducted under investigational new drug (IND) applications are the most appropriate way to conduct research on the medicinal uses of marijuana," the DEA said in a statement.
Hillary for America Senior Policy Advisor Maya Harris responded to the DEA's announcement with the following statement: "We applaud the steps taken today by the Obama Administration to remove research barriers that have significantly limited the scientific study of marijuana. Marijuana is already being used for medical purposes in states across the country, and it has the potential for even further medical use."
Clinton addressed the issue of medical marijuana during the first Democratic presidential debate in November 2015. “I do support the use of medical marijuana,” she said. “And I think even there we need to do a lot more research, so that we know exactly how we’re going to help people for whom medical marijuana provides relief.”
And unlike the DEA, the Clinton campaign statement takes on the issue of rescheduling: "As Hillary Clinton has said throughout this campaign, we should make it easier to study marijuana so that we can better understand its potential benefits, as well as its side effects. As president, Hillary will build on the important steps announced today by rescheduling marijuana from a Schedule I to a Schedule II substance. She will also ensure Colorado, and other states that have enacted marijuana laws, can continue to serve as laboratories of democracy."
The DEA's statement came after members of Congress again called for the reclassification of marijuana on August 9 and the National Conference of State Legislatures adopted a resolution asking the federal government to remove marijuana from Schedule I.
The legislative group criticized federal law for imposing "substantial administrative and operational burdens, compliance risk and regulatory risk that serve as a barrier to banks and credit unions providing banking services to businesses and individuals involved in the cannabis industry."
Oregon state representative Ann Lininger, who introduced the resolution, explained that continuing the Schedule I classification creates risks for the 5,000 legal marijuana businesses in the U.S. that are trying to operate under the law.
Not having access to banking services creates a dangerous situation for the companies and their employees, and prohibits other businesses from doing business with them. It's a "public safety risk," she says.
“Although this is an obvious ‘step forward’ for those looking to do research into cannabis, the DEA’s announcement still falls quite short of the advancements we need to truly propel the industry and plant forward," says Kyle Sherman, CEO of Flowhub, a Denver-based company that creates software to help manage cannabis grow operations.
According to the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States; about 22.2 million people use the drug each month — but only 6.5 million from that total reported recreational use of the drug. That means that over 70 percent of marijuana users report some medical benefit of the drug.
Twenty-five states and Washington, D.C., have legalized medical marijuana since California first did so in 1996. In these states, there are 1,246,170 patients who use marijuana as a legal remedy to an assortment of illnesses and ailments, according to reports filed in each state and compiled by procon.org.
That number is expected to double if the rest of the country legalizes the use of medical marijuana.
As we reported last month, DEA officials testified before a Senate committee on July 13 that the agency encourages marijuana research. "As of July 12, 2016, the DEA has received and granted all requested  waivers to researchers," said Susan Weiss, director of the Division of Extramural Research within the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
At the same hearing, Linden Barber, a lawyer specializing in DEA Compliance and Litigation Practice, testified that moving marijuana from a Schedule I classification to Schedule II wouldn't help research in the long run.
The DEA "considers the same factors and performs the same analysis when establishing aggregate production quotas, regardless of whether the substance is in Schedule I or Schedule II," he said in his testimony. "From the perspective of one who represents registrants before the agency, it appears that the DEA's leadership is working with researchers to reduce barriers to research."