Column: DEA doing what it should have done years ago

The Drug Enforcement Administration is reevaluating its schedule status for smoked cannabis, where it has sat since 1970 (before the DEA’s establishment) alongside heroin and LSD. (Payton/Creative Commons)

The Drug Enforcement Administration is reevaluating its schedule status for smoked cannabis, where it has sat since 1970 (before the DEA’s establishment) alongside heroin and LSD as a Schedule I drug, meaning it has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse."

The government organization wrote in a detailed memo to lawmakers its intention to decide whether to change the federal status of cannabis within the first half of 2016, and it’s about time.

There are several problems with cannabis’ position atop the schedule chart, and considering this article is being written for a college newspaper, there lies no doubt in mind a fair portion of readers already know or intuitively feel some of them, but I will highlight a couple of the inconsistencies anyway.

Aside from the obvious disparity of lethality regarding cannabis versus something like heroin, a fundamental problem I have with the schedule chart is the primary psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, delta-9 THC. This ingredient exists elsewhere, but as a “Schedule III” drug, which is defined as “drugs with a moderate to low potential for physical and psychological dependence.”

Dronabinol is a synthesized form of THC predominately used to treat chemotherapy-induced nausea, loss of appetite and weight loss — some of the same things medical marijuana is used to treat. So, according to the DEA, pharmaceutically sanctioned, pill-based THC is permissible but any other medium of the drug is not.

For perspective, the drugs ketamine (a dissociative anesthetic bearing a very similar chemical composition and function as PCP and used often as a club drug and products containing less than 90 milligrams per dosage unit of codeine (like Nyquil) are also “Schedule III.” Alcohol isn’t even “scheduled” either.

It is thus reasonable to surmise the pharmacology isn’t really the issue, and there must have been something else, potentially something political that renders the DEA unable to rout smoked cannabis from the top of the schedule chart.

It seems the cannabis-seizing business is good to the DEA, who says on their website their “Cannabis Eradication” program raked in over $27.3 million in cultivator assets last year. According to the International Business Times, the organization spent only $18 million financing the operation, so a $9 million profit isn’t so bad.

But the incestuous overlap between state and federal drug law tends to place an excessive burden on states where the drug is recognized statewide as legal for recreational use. The Washington Post reported that in 2014, the DEA spent $960,000 uprooting 16,067 plants in Oregon, which equates to $60 per taxpayer in the state.

On the other hand the DEA spends only $4.20 nationally for each plant it removes. Although Oregon had not legalized cannabis to the degree that it is now until 11 months into that year, growers and dispensary-owners in states supporting its legalization still endure discrepancies with federal agents.

And with the novelty of legalization should come appropriate research to substantiate its contentious status and hopefully change some minds, but the current “Schedule I” status brings its bureaucratic hurdles, and according to the DEA’s memo, the government only granted cannabis for research purposes to an average of nine researchers a year between 2010 and 2015.

Moreover, the University of Mississippiis government-approved for growing cannabis for research purposes. Therefore, many academics ignore it because of the hassle associated with procuring the drug. It is wholly outside the public’s interest to not have a perpetually enlightened, up-to-date and sufficient understanding of a drug now being sold in certain states.

As cannabis maintains a “Schedule I” status, the Drug Enforcement Administration is both taking it for financial gain (at taxpayers’ expense) and prohibiting knowledge as to why a drug is useful, beneficial or maybe unhealthy.

In any case, that the DEA appears to be considering the err of its ways may spell a positive bureaucratic turn for the United States drug policy and dismantle the incongruities between state and federal law.


Stephen Friedland is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at stephen.friedland@uconn.edu.