Starting Thursday, the federal government will take a new approach to medical marijuana research: The government will allow new research institutions to grow marijuana and conduct clinical studies with the plant, after years of allowing only the University of Mississippi to conduct marijuana research. Even though the Drug Enforcement Administration is not loosening legal restrictions on marijuana, this is actually a pretty big step toward a more compassionate and science-based approach to cannabis after decades of rigid prohibition.
Although a majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana, the Obama administration has been surprisingly reluctant to ease federal restrictions. (His Justice Department has allowed states to experiment with legalization, but it still prosecutes growers and users sporadically.) Cannabis is currently listed as a Schedule I drug, along with substances like heroin. That means that under federal standards, the plant is one of “the most dangerous drugs” and has “no currently accepted medical use.”
Most marijuana reform advocates assume that the DEA will eventually reschedule the substance to a Schedule II drug.* That label would still be somewhat silly, putting marijuana’s dangerousness on par with cocaine and methamphetamine. But it would make cannabis research vastly easier, and likely make federal marijuana prosecution a very low priority. Presuming the research proved fruitful, the DEA would probably eventually move marijuana further down that schedule. That, in turn, would finally make the medical marijuana systems currently in place in 25 states and the District of Columbia legal, rather than an unlawful experiment to which the feds sometimes turn a blind eye.
By changing the monopoly system on marijuana research, the Obama administration could finally jump-start this long-stalled process. The few reliable studies we do have on marijuana are extraordinarily encouraging: Cannabis appears to be useful in treating arthritis, cancer, chronic pain, anxiety, depression, glaucoma, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s. But the research arguably remains thin enough to allow the federal government to maintain marijuana’s Schedule I status. Until now, this Catch-22 has kept medical marijuana research largely frozen: In order to do research on the drug’s medical benefits, scientists needed access to it; in order to gain access, they had to prove it was medically beneficial. As of Thursday, that loop is no more, and when the results of the news studies begin rolling in, the DEA may feel compelled to take a harder look at marijuana’s proven benefits—and legal status.
Of course, Congress could also curtail this process by stepping in and reclassifying marijuana itself, as the National Conference of State Legislatures is demanding. But the politics of the issue are tricky on both sides: Many but certainly not all congressional Democrats favor broad legalization, while Republicans remain deeply divided on medical marijuana. For now, rescheduling is the absolute best reform advocates can hope for—and it seems all but inevitable after Thursday’s announcement.
*Update, Aug. 12, 2016: After this post published, Robert J. Capecchi, Director of Federal Policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, responded via email with the following comment:
I take a small bit of umbrage to your categorization that “most marijuana reform advocates assume that DEA will eventually” reschedule marijuana to Schedule II. I very much do not assume that DEA will move marijuana from Schedule I and I don’t think “most” of my colleagues do either. I think federal marijuana policy reform will come from Congress, and (ideally) that reform will be taking marijuana out of the Controlled Substances Act altogether and explicitly allowing states to regulate it as they see fit.