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By Brooke Edwards Staggs for The Cannabist
An organization that advocates for medical marijuana patients hopes to force the Drug Enforcement Administration to remove from its website 25 statements about the health risks of cannabis that it argues have been debunked – even by the DEA itself.
Americans for Safe Access filed a petition under the Information Quality Act arguing that the DEA is shaping public policy by promoting false statements about the gateway theory along with the link between marijuana and lung cancer, psychosis and mental decline in adults.
“We have taken this action to stop the DEA’s relentless campaign of misinformation about the health risks of medical cannabis in its tracks,” said Vickie Feeman, an attorney representing Americans for Safe Access in the federal petition.
The DEA in August reaffirmed its 46-year-old stance that marijuana should remain classified alongside heroin and LSD as a Schedule I controlled substance – a designation reserved for highly addictive drugs with no proven medical use.
Congress placed cannabis in that category in 1970. The drug’s classification has been reviewed periodically. The latest reexamination was prompted by a petition filed with the DEA five years ago by then-Washington state Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire and then-Rhode Island Republican Gov. Lincoln Chafee.
Thousands of published studies and extensive anecdotal evidence now indicate marijuana can help with conditions such as epilepsy and chronic pain. But DEA acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg said a thorough review of the research, with input from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, determined cannabis treatments haven’t yet been proven effective by controlled clinical trials and widespread acceptance from the medical community.
“If the scientific understanding about marijuana changes – and it could change – then the decision could change,” Rosenberg said. “But we will remain tethered to science.”
Even within that August ruling, though, the DEA acknowledged several points that Americans for Safe Access argues directly contradict statements still posted on its website.
The DEA reported in August, for example, that there’s little to no connection between marijuana smoking and lung cancer. However, the agency’s website still states that marijuana smoke is riskier than tobacco and has been proven to cause tumors.
The agency also asserted in its August ruling that there’s no proven connection between mental declines in healthy adult consumers. But the DEA website still states that cognitive abilities get worse over time for pot users, including for those 18 and older.
Such statements about the health risks of cannabis continue to threaten access for patients who live in states with legal medical marijuana laws, Americans for Safe Access says. The organization said these statements also may contribute to keeping multibillion-dollar legal cannabis industries in limbo due to ongoing conflicts between state and federal laws.
Cannabis growers, distributors and retailers can’t access banking services, forcing them to operate largely in cash. They can’t write off typical business expenses come tax time. Derek Peterson, CEO of Irvine-based Terra Tech, even got denied life insurance because of his involvement in the cannabis industry.
“Some sort of deal needs to be brokered to harmonize state and federal law so we’re not constantly battling each other,” said Aaron Herzberg, who runs the Costa Mesa-based marijuana real estate firm CalCann Holdings.
Until then, he said, the federal government’s view of pot will continue to diverge from that of the American public.
Roughly 80 percent of Americans believe medical marijuana should be legal, according to recent polls. The plant can be used to treat ailments in 28 states, while recreational use is allowed in eight states plus Washington, D.C.
“The majority of citizens live in states where marijuana is available to people for medical purposes,” Herzberg said. “It seems like the DEA and federal government is just woefully behind the times and is not getting the message.”
The DEA did make one concession over the summer, saying it would remove the government’s monopoly on growing high-quality marijuana for research purposes. The policy has meant that since 1968, only the University of Mississippi could supply marijuana for FDA-approved studies.
The DEA insists it’s never turned down a request from qualified researchers to access that supply. But the agency acknowledged there’s mounting demand from researchers, so it’s going to allow more growers to apply to become federally sanctioned suppliers.
Dr. Igor Grant, a psychiatrist who oversees the Center for Medical Cannabis Research at UC San Diego, said he was encouraged by efforts to expand access for researchers.
“There is significant evidence that cannabis possesses therapeutic value, and it is worthy of continued, even accelerated, investigation and development,” Grant said. “Actions that reduce obstacles to conducting serious, rigorous science regarding the use of cannabis to treat diseases are a good thing.”
Terra Tech’s Peterson said the DEA’s August decision on researching cannabis was long overdue. However, the federal government is being “hypocritical,” he said, by simultaneously asserting marijuana has enough potential medical benefits to justify changing research policies but also should remain a Schedule I drug.
Such a conflicted message also comes through in the contrast between what the agency said about the health risks of marijuana in its August ruling and what it states on its website, according to Americans for Safe Access.
By leaving the debunked statements up, the nonprofit organization argues that the DEA is violating federal laws regarding accurate, objective information plus influencing how Congress votes on a bill that safeguards rights in legal marijuana states and other public health policies.
Americans for Safe Access is urging President Barack Obama to make the DEA change or remove these conflicting statements before his term expires Jan. 20.