Rescheduling prohibition

Schedule I ban
Since 1970, US federal law has classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug, the strictest category available for psychoactive substances. Physicians can not prescribe Schedule I drugs, which include heroin and LSD, under any circumstances, nor may citizens legally possess these substances.

Prohibitionists in the US and abroad rely on this classification to justify maintaining criminal penalties for marijuana possession and distribution. Most recently, the 1999 US National Drug Control Strategy stated: “Marijuana is a Schedule I drug… because of its high potential for abuse and lack of accepted medical use. …Marijuana is similarly controlled internationally through inclusion on Schedule I of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. …Addictive drugs [like marijuana]were criminalized because they are harmful; they are not harmful because they were criminalized.”

High Times lawsuit

American researcher Jon Gettman and the publishers of High Times Magazine filed an administrative petition with the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 1995, arguing that marijuana lacks the requirements necessary for Schedule I or Schedule II classification.

Last year, the DEA responded to this petition by requesting the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to conduct a “scientific and medical evaluation of the available data, and provide a scheduling recommendation” for marijuana and other cannabinoid drugs.

The viability of their lawsuit has been bolstered by the conclusions of recent medical marijuana report of the US Institute of Medicine (IOM). The IOM’s determinations should play a prominent role in influencing the HHS’ forthcoming recommendation, and pave the way for marijuana’s placement in a less prohibitive schedule.

New York lawyer Michael Kennedy, attorney for the petitioners, said that the IOM’s conclusions signify an impending end to the specter of marijuana prohibition.

“The IOM findings support our petition to the DEA, demanding the reclassification of marijuana from a Schedule I drug to a lower classification, consistent with its therapeutic potential and relative harmlessness,” remarked Kennedy. “This report shows that there is simply no scientific basis for continuing the arrests of 700,000 Americans a year for marijuana offenses.”

IOM med-pot report

The IOM spent more than two years examining the available science before issuing the report, Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base. Amidst the IOM’s modest praise for medical marijuana, their researchers established the groundwork to end international marijuana prohibition.

Their conclusions demonstrate that marijuana does not meet the criteria of a Schedule I or II controlled substance.

By law, Schedule I drugs must have a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use, and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision.

Schedule II drugs are similar, having an accepted medical use but still considered easily abused and to “lead to severe psychological or physical dependence.”

For years, independent researchers have asserted that marijuana fails to meet any of the Schedule I standards. However, few federally commissioned studies have addressed the issue. Even the IOM’s own researchers refused to publicly answer questions regarding their study’s impact on future marijuana policy. Yet they don’t have to. Their report contains ample evidence to exonerate marijuana of the most serious charges levied against it.

Potential for abuse?

Regarding the allegation that marijuana holds a “high potential for abuse,” the IOM report counters with the following:

“Millions of Americans have tried marijuana, but most are not regular users.”

“Tolerance to most of the effects of marijuana can develop rapidly after only a few doses, and it also disappears rapidly.”

“There is no conclusive evidence that the drug effects of marijuana are causally linked to the subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs.”

After exploring these key issues, the IOM’s verdict is apparent: Most marijuana smokers are not recurrent users, and their use poses only very minor risks for abuse.

No medical use?

After examining the available data, the IOM refutes the notion that marijuana lacks medical value. “Marijuana’s active components are potentially effective in treating pain, nausea, the anorexia of AIDS wasting, and other symptoms,” declared the researcher team.

They further revealed that marijuana’s medical benefits outweigh the risks associated with smoking for some seriously ill patients. “For patients who do not respond well to other medications… short-term marijuana use appears to be suitable in treating conditions like chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, or the wasting syndrome caused by AIDS,” concluded co-principle investigator John Benson, Jr.

The IOM team weren’t done yet. Their strongest indictment of marijuana’s prohibitive status lies in the Executive Summary, which states, “Except for the harms associated with smoking, the adverse effects of marijuana use are within the range of effects tolerated for other medications.” This conclusion thoroughly discredits the drug’s prohibited status, by finding marijuana delivered in a non-smoked form to be as safe as many other drugs prescribed under medical supervision.

Question of dependence

Having established marijuana’s medical utility, the IOM researchers took aim at the question of dependence.

“In sum, although few marijuana users develop dependence, some do. But, they appear to be less likely to do so than users of other drugs (including alcohol and nicotine), and marijuana dependence appears less severe than it is for other drugs.”

This finding makes it equally impossible to legally categorize marijuana as a Schedule II drug like methamphetamine, morphine, and even marijuana’s legal THC alternative, Marinol.

The IOM’s conclusions open the door to free marijuana from the shackles of criminal prohibition, and place it in a schedule relative to its medical value and low potential for harm.

? Paul Armentano, 27, is a freelance journalist and the Publications Director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) in Washington, DC.