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It's Past Time to Reschedule Cannabis, Advocates Sue over Delay

Thursday, June 09, 2011 by: Kris Hermes
Tags: cannabis, rescheduling, health news

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(NaturalNews) It's been nearly nine years since the Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis (CRC) filed its petition in 2002 to reclassify cannabis (otherwise known as marijuana). For decades now, the federal government has held onto the misguided and outdated position that cannabis is a dangerous drug with no medical value. And, rather than address cannabis as a public health issue, the government's strategy has simply been to delay the advancement of rescheduling. However, in an attempt to unrest that strategy and force a decision from the Obama Administration, the CRC, which includes advocacy groups and individual patients, recently filed a lawsuit based on unreasonable delay.

A writ of mandamus was filed on May 23rd in the D.C. Circuit, accusing the Obama Administration of violating the Administrative Procedures Act. The writ calls out the government for unlawfully failing to answer the CRC petition despite an Inter-Agency Advisory issued by the Food and Drug Administration in 2006 and "almost five years after receiving a 41-page memorandum from HHS stating its scientific evaluation and recommendations." By comparison, the average time taken to answer other rescheduling petitions filed since 2002 is only six months from HHS (Department of Health and Human Services) review.

As the administrator of all controlled substances, the DEA is the final arbiter in the petition process and can either accept or ignore other agency recommendations. That the DEA has made no secret of its political proclivity with regard to cannabis makes the delay in answering the CRC petition that much more untenable. In July 2010, the DEA quietly issued a 54-page "Position on Marijuana," but failed to even mention the pending CRC petition. "The Obama Administration can't have its cake and eat it too," said Joe Elford, Chief Counsel with ASA and lead counsel on the writ. "The government cannot have a clearly stated, public position on cannabis and at the same time let a pending rescheduling petition just gather dust."

To be fair, the strategy of delay is not particular to the Obama Administration. The problem has spanned many administrations, going back to President Nixon and the establishment of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. A previous petition to reschedule cannabis went unanswered for 22 years before being denied. Advocates stress that there's an actual cost to the strategy of delay. Millions of Americans that could benefit from the therapeutic properties of cannabis are discouraged from using it. Those that choose to ignore federal law, are under threat of criminal prosecution and victim to harassment, intimidation and discrimination even in states that have decriminalized medical cannabis. People suffering from debilitating illnesses also don't have time to waste. To underscore this point, one of the original CRC petitioners passed away in 2005, three years after the petition was filed.

The DEA has been guilty of not only chronic delay, but also ignoring the recommendations it's given. During a previous rescheduling petition, the DEA's own Administrative Law Judge Francis Young found in 1988 that, "Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man." Young further stated that, "The evidence...clearly shows that marijuana has been accepted as capable of relieving the distress of great numbers of very ill people, and doing so with safety under medical supervision. It would be unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious for DEA to continue to stand between those sufferers and the benefits of this substance in light of the evidence in this record." Nevertheless, the DEA ignored Young's ruling and denied the petition.

The country's two largest physician organizations -- the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American College of Physicians (ACP) -- have both called on the government to review the status of cannabis as a Schedule I substance. The ACP called for an "evidence-based review of marijuana's status as a Schedule I controlled substance to determine whether it should be reclassified," and the AMA urged review "with the goal of facilitating clinical research and development of cannabinoid-based medicines." The AMA also acknowledged that, "short term controlled trials indicate that smoked cannabis reduces neuropathic pain, improves appetite and caloric intake especially in patients with reduced muscle mass, and may relieve spasticity and pain in patients with multiple sclerosis."

Adding more fuel to the fire of debate surrounding the rescheduling issue, the National Cancer Institute (NCI), an agency of the National Institutes of Health, placed cannabis on its list of Complementary Alternative Medicines (CAM) earlier this year. In addition to recognizing the benefits of cannabis for an array of adverse health conditions, NCI admitted that "Cannabis has been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years prior to its current status as an illegal substance."

Some medical cannabis advocates argue that the strategy of delay is aimed at giving Big Pharma more time to develop cannabis-based products that will help the government continue its suppression of smoked cannabis or use of the whole plant in other forms. The most widely used prescribed cannabis product is MarinolR, a gelcap of synthetically derived THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) suspended in sesame oil. However, MarinolR which went off-patent earlier this year has shown to be less effective than the plant and is prohibitively expensive for many patients. In an effort to bring the price down, if not improve quality, companies are now vying for the right to produce generic MarinolR by using naturally derived THC as opposed to the more expensive synthetic version. The catch is, to allow companies to produce it, naturally derived THC must be classified the same as its synthetic counterpart, in Schedule III. Needless to say, if the government ramps up production of the whole plant or allows companies to do so, the argument that the plant has no medical value will further erode.

"Adhering to outdated public policy that ignores science has created a war zone for doctors and their patients who are seeking to use cannabis therapeutics," said Steph Sherer, Executive Director of ASA and a plaintiff in the writ. Jon Gettman, who filed the rescheduling petition on behalf of the CRC added that, "The Obama Administration's refusal to act on this petition is an irresponsible stalling tactic." That said, the Obama Administration has the ability and duty to respond to this cry for reform. Indeed, rescheduling cannabis would benefit millions and move us in the direction of scientific integrity. Further delay is harmful and inexcusable.

About the author:
Kris Hermes
Media Specialist
Americans for Safe Access

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