Legalizing cannabis is the trendy thing for state lawmakers to do these days. Whether it’s allowing recreational or medicinal uses, or expunging possession charges, 46 states are looking greener than ever. However, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) approach to cannabis hasn’t changed much since its formation in 1973, even if enforcement and state laws have changed dramatically in the years since. Why?
Cannabis is classified as a schedule 1 controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act of 1971. The act denotes five “schedules” of such substances, with schedule 1 being the most restrictive.
“Substances in this schedule have no currently accepted medical use in the United States, a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse,” according to the DEA. Cannabis shares this classification with drugs such as LSD, Psilocybin — the active ingredient in magic mushrooms — heroin and the date rape drug GHB.
Does cannabis belong in this classification? Is there truly no accepted medical use for cannabis?
There are currently only four states with no state cannabis programs, as every state other than Idaho, Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota allows some form of medical cannabis. Other states have programs which range from limited use of reduced strength “referrals” — prescribing a schedule 1 substance is illegal under federal law — to recreational use in states, such as California and Washington, and in Washington, D.C.
These programs came about because of research done regarding cannabis’ effects on relieving pain, as well as reducing nausea and increasing appetite in patients with chronic pain, especially cancer patients.
America is currently experiencing a national opioid crisis. In 2018, nearly 2,000 people died of opioid overdoses in Illinois. That’s almost twice the number that died in fatal car accidents. Patients today are far more likely to become addicted to opioids following a legal prescription, such as Oxycontin, and “the incidence of heroin initiation was 19 times higher among those who reported prior non-medical pain reliever use,” according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Following an addiction to prescription opiate medications, many patients turn to heroin and synthetic opiates, such as fentanyl, once they’re denied further prescriptions — or once the prescriptions can’t keep up with their tolerance.
In contrast, cannabis has been shown to relieve pain in certain settings. If cannabis was used in conjunction with opiate medications, patients could receive lower doses of opiate medication for their pain, making addiction less likely and the withdrawal symptoms less severe. Cannabis also complements opiates by reducing nausea.
Even on its own, cannabis has been shown to be an effective pain reliever. Studies have shown it to be as effective as moderate doses of codeine. If cannabis could be prescribed — and if the restrictions on its research were lifted — then the pain-relieving effects of cannabis could be further discovered. This could lead to a potential new class of painkillers, bringing an alternative to opioid painkillers to the market.
Studies have shown cannabis is much less addiction-forming than opiates such as heroin and the physical and social harm done to the body is much less than that of extended opiate use.
Clearly, there’s widespread acceptance of the potential for cannabis’ medical use, so why does the DEA continue to classify the drug as such? Because the DEA would be a fraction of the agency it currently is if it didn’t.
Cannabis is a popular drug in the United States. It’s by far the most commonly used illicit substance in the United States. In 2013, an estimated 19.8 million Americans had used cannabis in the past month.
In 2011, the DEA seized 113,000 pounds of cannabis from growers within the U.S. That might sound like a lot, however, in 2009, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) seized 4.3 million pounds. If cannabis wasn’t as tightly regulated as it is now, the DEA wouldn’t be justified in some of these seizures, leaving the enforcement of laws against illicit cannabis primarily in the hands of CBP.
Cannabis is the only major drug of abuse grown within the United States, according to the DEA. If it were less federally regulated, the DEA would be forced to massively shrink its workforce, with CBP taking over as the primary agency fighting drugs. So why not reschedule it and shrink the DEA?
Lobbying is one reason. Specifically, the private prison lobby. Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group together have spent $35 million on lobbying the U.S. government since 1989. The two companies generate $1.7 and $1.6 billion of revenue annually, from ensuring that an estimated 2.3 million Americans remain locked up.
Another reason is what is left of the war on drugs. The DEA was created in 1973, at a time where drug use was ever-present. A survey conducted in 1968 showed nearly half of all adults had used a mind-altering substance at some point in their life, and 25 percent had used one in the past year.
This trend continued into the 1970s, with the beginning of the “war on drugs” in the 1980s marking an increase in budget for the DEA from $75 million in 1973 to $207 million in 1980 to $654 million by 1990. These decades of expansion, along with anti-drug sentiment in popular media and government programs, led to the writing of stricter laws. Laws such as mandatory minimum sentences increased the power of the DEA and led to a snowball effect: stricter laws require more agents and more funding, which leads to more arrests, which causes more fear about drugs, which sparks new legislation. This cycle caused the size of the DEA to balloon, with its 2019 budget of $3.1 billion.
Ultimately, no matter what legislation gets passed at the state level, the science necessary to get the most out of cannabis won’t be possible without reclassification at the federal level. Universities and drug companies wishing to conduct research on it must jump through hoops to complete their research, as they’re dependent on federal research grants. The classification of cannabis as a schedule 1 controlled substance benefits the DEA and nobody else.