Governors push reclassification of marijuana for medical use

Four have signed requests for the federal government to change the classification to a schedule II drug.

By — Posted Jan. 16, 2012

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A handful of governors have launched a new push for marijuana to be reclassified so that the drug is more widely accepted for medical treatment.

By mid-December 2011, three governors had signed a petition asking the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to conduct a new scientific review of cannabis research. Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin was the latest to add his signature to a petition started Nov. 30, 2011, by Washington state Gov. Chris Gregoire and Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper's administration made a similar request to the DEA on Dec. 22, 2011, according to the governor's spokesman.

Public attitudes toward medical marijuana are changing, and medical organizations across the country have recognized the drug's potential benefits for medical use, Gregoire's petition says. The DEA classifies marijuana as a schedule I drug, meaning it's not approved for any medical use. A schedule II classification would allow the drug to be used for medical purposes but still would be tightly restricted.

"Poll after poll shows an overwhelming majority of Americans now see medical marijuana as legitimate," Gregoire said. "An ever-growing number of doctors now tell thousands of suffering patients they may find relief from the unique medicinal qualities of cannabis. There is simply no question that pharmacists could safely and reliably dispense cannabis to patients, just as they do for other controlled and more problematic drugs."

In a separate letter to the DEA, Colorado's executive branch also requested that marijuana be reclassified, stressing the importance of reconciling conflicting state and federal laws. Some states allow medical marijuana use with a prescription, but those allowances hinge on the federal government not enforcing federal statute making the drug illegal.

"As long as there is a divergence in state and federal law, there is a lack of certainty necessary to provide safe access for patients with serious medical conditions," said Barbara Brohl, executive director for the Colorado Dept. of Revenue.

The DEA has received the governors' petitions and is "reviewing the application following the process set forth under the Controlled Substances Act," DEA spokesman David Levey said.

The DEA's website says that to reclassify a drug, the agency must consider:

  • The substance's potential for abuse.
  • Evidence of its pharmacological effect.
  • The state of current scientific knowledge regarding the drug.
  • The scope, duration and significance of abuse.
  • Risks to public health.
  • Whether the substance is an immediate precursor for use of another controlled substance.

The governors' push to reclassify marijuana comes after an October 2011 announcement by the California Medical Assn. of new association policy supporting the drug's legalization. Physicians need better research on the drug to counsel patients better, which is not possible under the current federal prohibitions, the association said.

The American Medical Association has called for further "adequate and well-controlled studies of marijuana and related cannabinoids in patients who have serious conditions for which preclinical, anecdotal or controlled evidence suggests possible efficacy, and the application of such results to the understanding and treatment of disease."

The AMA urges that marijuana's status as a federal schedule I controlled substance be reviewed with the goal of facilitating clinical research and development of cannabinoid-based medicines and alternative delivery methods. The policy stresses that this should not be viewed as an endorsement by the AMA of state-based medical cannabis programs, the legalization of marijuana or the contention that scientific evidence on the therapeutic use of cannabis meets the current standards for a prescription drug product.

Arizona governor's lawsuit thrown out

Meanwhile, another governor has lost a fight against state medical marijuana law. A federal judge on Jan. 4 dismissed Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer's lawsuit challenging her state's statute.

Brewer said the Arizona law meant that state employees could be prosecuted on a federal level for adhering to the statute. She asked the court to clarify whether compliance with the state law violates federal law. Federal attorneys in August 2011 asked a judge to throw out the suit.

U.S. District Judge Susan R. Bolton agreed to dismiss the lawsuit, ruling that plaintiffs did not prove that a genuine threat existed.

"The complaint details no concrete or imminent threat of enforcement, nor does it describe with any credible detail a state employee at risk of federal prosecution under the [law]. Plaintiffs have not satisfied the prudential component of ripeness," the judge said.

Sixteen states have laws legalizing medical marijuana. However, the laws conflict with federal statute and have led to raids and threats to shut down marijuana dispensaries in some states. Federal agents have warned that a number of dispensaries in Washington state and California are violating federal law. Many of the state laws also have been the subject of legal challenges over whether prerequisites for obtaining medical marijuana are too strict.

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