Drug Czar Admits Feds Blocked Marijuana Research

The Obama administration’s top drug policy official says legalization advocates aren’t wrong when they criticize the federal government for blocking marijuana research for so long.

“It’s a somewhat fair criticism that the government hasn’t wholly supported research to really investigate what’s the potential therapeutic value,” Michael Botticelli, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), told Politico’s Dan Diamond last week.

Botticelli, known informally as “drug czar,” argued in the interview that the Obama administration has in recent years made a number of moves to open up avenues to research. Still, it’s remarkable for the nation’s leading drug official to admit that the federal government has often stood in the way of scientific inquiry into cannabis’s medical uses.

In August, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) denied pending petitions to reclassify marijuana, opting instead to keep it in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, a category that’s supposed to be reserved for drugs with no medical value.

But along with the rejection of rescheduling, DEA did move to end a policy that has led to the University of Mississippi being the only legal source of cannabis for studies in the U.S. since 1968. Scientists had complained that under the so-called monopoly it is difficult to obtain marijuana and that even when their applications are granted, the product is often of poor quality. DEA will now begin granting more cultivation licenses, a move that is expected to greatly increase the amount and variety of cannabis available for research.

Separately, the Obama administration ended a policy last year which since 1999 forced studies on marijuana to undergo an extra review by the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS), a hoop which researchers investigating other drugs did not have to jump through.

These changes have removed roadblocks that researchers and advocates have vigorously opposed, but others still remain.

For example, just by virtue of marijuana’s remaining a Schedule I drug, research on the drug still needs to undergo “additional steps” that other drug inquiries don’t need to take, according to Douglas Throckmorton, deputy director of the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Speaking of FDA, news outlet ATTN: obtained previously unreleased documents last week showing that the agency pushed internally for the end of the PHS review and cultivation monopoly prior to the changes being announced.

The letter, drafted by the then-acting FDA commissioner in May 2015, shows that FDA and the National Institute on Drug Abuse believe DEA’s criteria for determining drug scheduling might be too restrictive. For example, it highlights the fact that the process doesn’t currently take into account the relative safety of marijuana compared to other drugs.

“While potentially daunting (depending on its nature and scope), re-evaluation of the legal and regulatory framework by DOJ/DEA and [U.S. Department of Health and Human Services] could identify ways to encourage appropriate scientific research into the potential therapeutic benefits of marijuana and its constituents,” says the letter, which was obtained under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

The document also shows FDA pushing for a separate scheduling determination for marijuana component cannabidiol (CBD), which has shown promise in treating severe seizure disorders.

It is unknown if Botticelli and ONDCP are pushing alongside FDA for a separate scheduling decision on CBD or for changes to the general criteria used for scheduling.

Last year, the drug czar made headlines by saying he supported Washington, D.C.’s ability to spend its own money legalizing marijuana, even if he personally disagreed with the underlying policy change.

Under a federal law, ONDCP and its director are legally required to oppose the legalization of marijuana or other Schedule I drugs.

Photo Courtesy of Allie Beckett.

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