Gregoire to DEA: Make marijuana a legal drug

November 29, 2011

Jonathan Martin, Seattle Times

A decades-long effort by marijuana activists to allow cannabis to be prescribed and sold in pharmacies gained allies in governors' mansions for the first time Wednesday.

Gov. Chris Gregoire, joined by Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, petitioned the Drug Enforcement Administration to reclassify marijuana, recognize that it has therapeutic value and allow it be treated as a prescription drug.

The petition, citing hundreds of peer-reviewed research articles, adds political heft and urgency for the federal government to resolve what Gregoire called "chaos and conflict" among 16 states with laws recognizing medicinal use of marijuana and a federal law that does not.

"In the year 2011, why can't medical cannabis be prescribed by a physician and filled at the drugstore just like any other medication? The answer is surprisingly simple. It can. But only if the federal government stops classifying marijuana as unsuitable for medical treatment," Gregoire said.

The petition comes as America's attitudes toward marijuana are softening, but the Obama administration is cracking down on medical-marijuana dispensaries — in Washington and other states — at an unprecedented level. Governors in medical-marijuana states were briefed on the petition to the DEA last fall, Gregoire said, and some were alerted Wednesday. Gregoire said she also alerted the state's two U.S. attorneys and asked for their help expediting the petition.

At least one governor — Peter Shumlin of Vermont, a Democrat — endorsed the petition, said his spokeswoman, Sue Allen.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, is required by state law to file a reclassification request by the end of the month, but he did not sign onto Gregoire's petition. His spokesman, Eric Brown, said the petition raises "a valid conflict that needs to be resolved."

"I have every expectation you'll see other governors join us," Gregoire said.

Battle began in 1972

Marijuana, banned by federal law in 1937, is classified as Schedule I, a drug with no medical value, under the Controlled Substances Act along with LSD, heroin and methamphetamine. The petition filed Wednesday seeks to reclassify it to Schedule II, which would allow it to be prescribed with "severe restrictions," alongside cocaine and opiates.

National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) petitioned for reclassification in 1972, and advocates have been trying ever since. The most recent petition, filed in 2002 by advocates, was reviewed by federal health officials in 2006, but it wasn't officially denied until July, when the advocates sued.

The review found "a material conflict of opinion among experts precludes a finding that marijuana has been accepted by qualified experts, even under conditions where its use is severely restricted," DEA administrator Michele Leonhart wrote.

That finding ignores a huge volume of research, as well as the experience of "thousands and thousands of medical-marijuana patients who clearly benefit," said Joe Elford, chief counsel for Americans for Safe Access, a California-based advocacy group now appealing the denial.

Elford called the governors' petition "extremely significant," but cautioned a review likely would take years. If approved, marijuana would then need to undergo Food and Drug Administration approval and have restrictions on access imposed.

Response among advocates was mixed. Philip Dawdy of Washington Alternative Medicine Alliance, a state trade group of medical-marijuana organizations, said he appreciated the governors "giving political legitimacy to what medical cannabis patients and voters in this state have known for decades" but was skeptical the DEA would act quickly.

An act of "frustration"

Gregoire and Chafee, a Republican-turned-Independent, are unlikely proponents because both have faced criticism for this year killing proposals passed by their legislatures to legalize dispensaries.

Gregoire at the time said she feared that licensing dispensaries would put state workers at federal risk of criminal or civil penalties. That risk has not been realized in states, including Colorado, with regulatory schemes.

Gregoire acknowledged that her veto "resulted in considerable chaos around the state," with dispensaries flourishing in Seattle but banned in most municipalities. Recent federal raids on dispensaries across the state also motivated the petition, she said.

"We've done it out of frustration, frankly, seeing what's happening, seeing the abuses, seeing the crackdown," she said.

The 106-page petition seeks to debunk the DEA claim that medical authorities are split on the issue. The petition cites 34 national and international medical organizations that have issued statements in favor of reclassification, including the American Medical Association and American College of Physicians, the largest group of doctors of internal medicine.

Jason McGill, a Gregoire staff attorney, co-wrote the petition over the past three months with Dr. Gregory Carter of the University of Washington and Mitch Earleywine, a New York addiction specialist and member of NORML's advisory board.

McGill said he was "amazed" at the volume of marijuana research, with 2,389 papers published in peer-reviewed journals compared, for example, to 508 for hydrocodone.

Marijuana's therapeutic value for symptoms related to cancer, HIV/AIDS, Lou Gehrig's disease and others is "indisputable in the research," said McGill. "In terms of rescheduling this, you need one useful purpose."

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