DEA's Marijuana Rescheduling Announcement May Not Come in 2016

Update: It's unofficially official. A senior executive at the Drug Enforcement Administration has confirmed that the DEA will not be rescheduling marijuana in 2016, says a local attorney who spoke with him late last week. "The DEA is not going to reschedule marijuana this year.... They aren't issuing a public announcement about the change," the attorney adds.

Many marijuana advocates — and the legislators who support them — have been hoping that the DEA would reschedule marijuana from a Schedule I to a Schedule II substance. The reclassification would acknowledge that the drug holds medical value and allow for more research.

As we reported last month (see original story below), the DEA had sent a letter to lawmakers in April, saying that the agency would release an announcement on rescheduling in the first half of this year. But July 1 came and went with no announcement, and the DEA has refused to set a new timeline.

"We do not have a date set to make an announcement about that one way or another," a representative in the DEA's public-affairs office said today.

And it sounds like when that date is set, it won't be in any 2016 calendar.

Our original story from July 19:

Talk of rescheduling marijuana has kept the cannabis industry and social media ablaze in 2016 — the year when the Drug Enforcement Administration will supposedly announce whether it will reclassify marijuana from a Schedule I to a Schedule II drug.

Recent rumors had a decision coming down as early as July 1 — but it looks as though we may have to wait a little longer.

In a letter released in April, the DEA had told lawmakers that it was actively reviewing information to determine whether to reschedule marijuana; the agency estimated an announcement on that decision would come "in the first half of 2016." But despite the DEA's self-imposed deadline, the first half of 2016 ended with no announcement. 

At the request of the DEA, the Food and Drug Administration conducted a review of the available data for marijuana in 2001 and again in 2006, Douglas Throckmorton, deputy director of the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said at a recent U.S. Senate hearing on medical marijuana.

After the second review, the FDA concluded that marijuana should remain a Schedule I substance "because of its high potential for abuse, the fact that it had no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and because it lacked accepted safety for use under medical supervision," Throckmorton said

"DEA is currently in the process of evaluating a number of other citizen petitions regarding the scheduling of marijuana," he concluded. 

The DEA is "not bound by any date" to announce its determination on rescheduling, according to its public-affairs division, but is still on track to release a decision sometime before the end of the year.

In a letter sent to the DEA on June 30, when it was clear the agency would take no action in the first half of 2016 — Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and other legislators, including Colorado congressman Jared Polis, asked the DEA to "take immediate action to remove 'cannabis' and 'tetrahydrocannabinols' from Schedule I."

MMJ patients are particularly eager for that action.

Changing marijuana's classification from Schedule 1 would help normalize the drug for patients, because Schedule II substances are viewed as having "a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States," according to the Controlled Substances Act. This means that a medical doctor could prescribe marijuana to patients legally across the country.

Many medical users say that would be a major step in the right direction. As it stands, the federal government does not view marijuana as having any medical value; instead, cannabis is legally aligned with the most dangerous and most criminalized substances, such as heroin and ecstasy. Even in states where medical marijuana is legal, doctors can only issue recommendations to their patients, not prescriptions.

But even if marijuana is designated Schedule II, it's unlikely that prescriptions would cover marijuana as it is most commonly used now — inhaled through smoking the bud. Instead, it would probably come in a pill form.

"You'd be able to get it through a prescription, (but) it won't be by smokeable leaf," says attorney Tom Downey, the former director of the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses. "You won't be able to go to your doctor and get prescribed a doobie."

In addition to making prescriptions available to medical patients, a Schedule II classification would allow research on the drug. "There are scientists at universities in Colorado, the marijuana capital, and they can't study it," Downey points out.

The research benefit of a Schedule II classification is the main reason that Representative Jared Polis supports rescheduling marijuana.

"Changing marijuana from a Schedule I drug to a Schedule II drug is small progress, and the only advantage is more thorough research," Polis says. "It’s absurd to group marijuana with a Schedule 1 drug like heroin, and while I’m pleased we are moving away from that grouping, the DEA has a long way to go before it catches up to medical science and public opinion.  Congress should follow Colorado’s example and legalize and regulate marijuana nationwide, similar to alcohol, or step out of the way and let states do it."

Despite the potential benefits of rescheduling, especially for medical patients and researchers, some in the marijuana industry are relieved that marijuana remains a Schedule I drug because of one major drawback to rescheduling: A Schedule II classification would force marijuana businesses to get approval from the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA approval process might make products safer and ensure consistency across the industry; however, it would also add more cost and many more steps to the production and sale of marijuana. This switch would completely change the industry, critics say, and could bankrupt many of the companies and growers currently in the business.

A reclassification would also allow major pharmaceutical companies, which have bottomless resources and already established relationships with the FDA, to muscle their way into the industry, they warn.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Kate McKee Simmons interned at the National Catholic Reporter, was a reporter for the New York Post, and spent a brief stint in Israel learning international reporting before writing for Westword.