Does a Catch-22 Keep Marijuana Labeled a Dangerous Drug?

PHOTO: Marijuana Supporters March In Hemp Parade.

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The federal government will continue to rank marijuana as one of the most dangerous drugs after an appeals court on Tuesday rejected an effort to change the classification.

The ruling keeps marijuana in the same pool as drugs like heroin and LSD, which the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) say have a "high potential for abuse" and "no currently accepted medical use."

The Los Angeles Times quoted one of the appeals court judges about the decision:

Judge Harry Edwards, writing for the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, said the judges did not dispute that "marijuana could have some medical benefits." Instead, he said, they were not willing to overrule the DEA because they had not seen large "well-controlled studies" that proved the medical value of marijuana.

Marijuana's classification as a Schedule I drug -- the most serious designation -- means that there are more restrictions for conducting research into its potential medical benefits.

Proponents of medical and recreational marijuana say that the restrictions make it hard for researchers to perform the types of studies that would convince the DEA to move the drug into a less serious category. Tamar Todd, senior staff attorney for the Drug Policy Alliance, spoke to The Daily Chronic, a pro-cannabis website, about the hurdles:

"We're stuck in a Catch-22 – the DEA is saying that marijuana needs FDA approval to be removed from Schedule I, but at the same time they are obstructing that very research," she said. "While there is a plethora of scientific evidence establishing marijuana's safety and efficacy, the specific clinical trials necessary to gain FDA approval have long been obstructed by the federal government itself."

Rusty Payne, a spokesperson for the DEA, says that there are "many" ongoing studies looking into the medical value of marijuana, but said he could not specify the exact number.

In any case, studies need to be approved by the agency, something that activists like Todd think is a conflict of interest. "The scheduling is made within the context of a law enforcement agency and that law enforcement agency has an interest in keeping drugs illegal and maintaining the status quo," she said.

The DEA isn't the only body with the power to reclassify marijuana. Congress could amend the Controlled Substances Act, which designated pot as one of the most dangerous drugs in 1970.

A change to the law would affect the way the DEA treats the drug, Payne said: "If it's signed into law, it's law and that's what we would enforce."

As it stands, the DEA devotes substantial resources to combating marijuana sales. Pound-for-pound, cannabis makes up the vast majority of drug seizures by the agency, accounting for 94 percent of captured drugs in 2011.

Payne says that the DEA doesn't use the drug rankings to determine what drugs to go after, but concedes that the majority of the agency's counternarcotics operations deal with drugs classified in the top two tiers of dangerous drugs, including cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines and marijuana.

"We go after drug trafficking organizations," Payne said. "Any drug trafficking organizations are involved in multi-drugs."

A reclassification of marijuana could have a major impact on the way the drug is used in the U.S. Drugs ranked as less dangerous by the DEA, like Xanax or cough syrup, can be distributed with a prescription or over the counter. Marijuana legalization advocates would like to see pot classified in the same way, but they say the system is created in a way that makes it difficult for the drug to move away from the Schedule I category, and that the DEA has an interest in keeping that way.

Kris Hermes, a spokesperson for Americans for Safe Access, the pro-legalization group that brought the suit against the DEA, said the burden is on the agency to change the situation.

"They are the ones that grant or deny petitions to reschedule," he said. "So it is ultimately up to the DEA."

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More than half of Americans support marijuana legalization. Still, the federal government considers it a dangerous drug. This is a look at the science, the conversations, and the politics of pot.

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