Fact Checking the DEA

By Vince Sliwoski for the Portland Mercury

Was the DEA forced to remove “alternative facts” about cannabis from its website?

YES! IN DECEMBER, the medical marijuana advocacy group, Americans for Safe Access (ASA), formally requested that the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) remove or correct a cluster of misinformation on medical cannabis from its website. Shortly thereafter, DEA complied.

The misinformation on the DEA site ranged from unsupportable claims to outright whoppers regarding “The Dangers and Consequences of Marijuana Abuse.” Here is a sampling: (1) smoking cannabis hastens the appearance of psychotic illness; (2) cannabis exacerbates depression and leads to more serious mental illness; (3) cannabis causes lung cancer (one cannabis cigarette equals 20 regular cigarettes); and (4) cannabis is probably a “gateway” to other dangerous drugs. The dubious list went on and on.

The ASA made its claims under the federal Information Quality Act, designed to ensure the integrity of information disseminated by federal agencies. In a nice turn of hand, the ASA used the DEA’s own findings against it. Last year, you may recall, DEA had been asked to reschedule cannabis on the federal controlled substances continuum. Although DEA refused to do so, it refreshingly observed that: (1) “data do not suggest a causative link between marijuana use and the development of psychosis”; (2) most scientific studies on marijuana and lung cancer showed that the “association is weak or inconsistent”; and (3) “overall, research does not support a direct causal relationship between regular marijuana use and other illicit drug use.”

The ASA’s legal strategy in using the DEA’s own findings against it could be a winning method for future challenges against DEA and other federal agencies. The administration’s stance on the dangers of marijuana is increasingly hard to justify, and it carries the odious whiff of prohibition lies. By using research commissioned by the DEA against it, the ASA forced DEA into a tight little spot where it had to either disavow its report from August, or admit that its website was incorrect. DEA chose the second option.

More research will be needed to truly understand weed from a public health perspective, and the complex interplay of cannabinoids and consumption methods (particularly combustion, or smoking) with the human body. Perhaps one day, a federal government agency will even recognize certain health benefits of the cannabis plant. For now, though, the ASA win is important because Congress takes the DEA seriously. Removal of unsupportable myths about weed from the DEA website could make meaningful reform easier.

As to ASA, the group continues to poke the bear—to the delight of pot boosters everywhere. The group has noted that although DEA quietly pulled the misinformation from its website, it never formally responded to the petition. Therefore, ASA sent a letter requesting a reply, and that DEA remove other allegedly mistaken or misleading statements about weed. Unfortunately, there are still a few.