Why Did the DEA Choose to Keep Marijuana a Level 1 Drug

Last week the Drug Enforcement Administration issued a highly anticipated decision concerning the classification of Marijuana as a controlled substance. Since 1970, with the passing of the Controlled Substance Act (CSA), Marijuana has been classified as a Schedule I Controlled Substance, a class that, by DEA definition, has a high potential for abuse and no currently accepted medical use. Other drugs classified in this group include: heroin, peyote, LSD and ecstasy.
The decision came in response to a petition put forth by proponents of medical marijuana who optimistically expected to see a change in the drug’s classification to either a lower tier – indicating a recognition by the DEA of marijuana’s medicinal value – or expected to see the drug declassified altogether, joining rank with tobacco and alcohol.

The Decision

On August 11th, the acting head of the DEA, Chuck Rosenberg, issued the agency’s decision in the form of a letter to the petitioners:
“Using established scientific standards that are consistent with that same FDA drug approval process and based on the FDA's scientific and medical evaluation, as well as the legal standards in the CSA, marijuana will remain a schedule I controlled substance.”
Many were shocked, even outraged, by the decision. In light of the last decade’s move towards de-stigmatizing marijuana, the DEA’s judgment felt antiquated.
In an attempt to buffer the pushback against the nay decision, Rosenberg dedicated a number of paragraphs in his letter to detailing the DEA and FDA’s openness towards ongoing and future marijuana studies that may some day provide scientific evidence to change the drugs classification.
“Some of the ongoing research includes studies of the effects of smoked marijuana on human subjects,” Rosenberg wrote. “Folks might be surprised to learn that we support this type of research. But, we do.”
On the contrary, Mr. Rosenberg, ‘folks’ might be more surprised to learn the DEA and FDA didn’t support this type of research, exactly because these agencies make the important decisions that affect the rest of us.

Why it was Unsurprising

Despite Rosenberg’s claims, peer-reviewed studies within the medical and scientific community have put forth evidence of marijuana’s medicinal value. This has been the case since the 1990s. The National Cancer Institute, for instance, found that, “Cannabis and cannabinoids may have benefits in treating the symptoms of cancer or the side effects of cancer therapies.”
And recent polling suggests upwards of 89% of Americans believe marijuana should be available for medical prescription, evidence that the data over the last few decades has been convincing enough for the general public.
However, despite Rosenberg’s testament to the DEA’s rigorous scientific approach towards drug scheduling, the agency is highly biased in the information it deems conclusive and permissible for consideration.
Also consider the fact that there are five particular special interest groups lobbying to keep marijuana illegal; three of which profit from the continuing drug war (police unions, private prison corporations, and prison guard unions) and two which stand to lose market share to recreational and/or medicinal marijuana use (alcohol and pharmaceutical companies).
As Greg Miller, writing for Sciencemag.org, pointed out, “[The] DEA’s decision not to reschedule marijuana presents a Catch-22. By ruling that there is not enough evidence of ‘currently accepted medical use’—a key distinction between the highly restrictive Schedule I classification and the less restrictive Schedule II—the administration essentially makes it harder to gather such evidence.” In light of this, the DEA decision to keep marijuana a Schedule I substance suggests motives of self-interest rather than scientific study.
But is anyone really surprised?

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