In response to an open letter from US Senators Elizabeth Warren, Barbara Boxer, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand and others inquiring about their agencies’ progress on loosening federal cannabis policy, the directors of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) have dropped tantalizing hints of possible reform in just a few months. That’s a big mouthful, but the short version is that the Obama administration may have some exciting news in cannabis reform this summer.
The letter is replete with inside information on the workings of often shrouded federal drug bureaucracy. But beyond the amusement value of learning what the feds classify as ‘high-THC’ cannabis (5-10%), the letter is well worth the read for a couple of suggestive hints of potential cannabis reform in DC.
Top of the list? The DEA acknowledges that it has received a scheduling recommendation from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and DHHS, and that it is “reviewing these documents and all relevant data to make a scheduling determination in accordance with the CSA [Controlled Substances Act].” And when will we hear about it? “DEA understands the widespread interest in the prompt resolutions of these petitions and hopes to release its determination in the first half of 2016.” Time will tell whether they hit that deadline, but some kind of announcement is on the way soon.
Of course the DEA has heard rescheduling petitions before. The CSA permits any interested party to initiate a rescheduling petition, but in the usual course of business the DEA reschedules at the request of the FDA and DHHS — the same agencies which have filed paperwork for cannabis here. This does not necessarily mean that the DEA will reschedule cannabis this year — after all, the FDA and DHHS may have recommended that the herb stay in Schedule I — but it means that it could.
There are other reasons to think that the DEA will take some kind of rescheduling action sooner or later. If it does, it will not be the first time the agency did something to help out producers of high CBD extracts, an illuminating move at a time when a foreign pharmaceutical corporation has FDA-approved trials underway for their line of — you guessed it — high CBD extracts. And according to the latest update, that extract (Epidiolex, from GW Pharmaceuticals) had attained both Orphan Drug and Fast Track status at the FDA, and having completed its first successful Phase 3 trial is planning two more for the year. That’s about as favorable a bureaucratic treatment as any drug ever gets at the FDA, so I for one would be surprised if the recommendation from the agency were damning.
But while these signs augur well for GW Pharm, street bud dealers should hold off on the legalization joint a while longer. The DEA could easily choose to reschedule cannabis extracts without rescheduling flowers and shake, leaving federal laws on smoked cannabis essentially unchanged. And even rescheduling is a long way from legalization, as it shifts jurisdiction for drugs from the DEA to the FDA, and as a couple dozen CBD oil companies just found out, the FDA can write a mean enforcement letter even if it doesn’t often show up at raids. So rescheduling is really only “legalization” for the corporations which can afford a marathon run through the FDA approval process.
Even more intriguing are passages from the response practically drawing a blueprint for reformers to achieve a long-sought goal: the approval of more licenses to grow federally-legit marijuana. In response to the senators’ inquiry of whether there may be a little competition to outdo NIDA’s current 5-10% ‘high-THC’ bud, the agencies gave a revealing answer:
The United States may, consistent with the CSA and Single Convention [the principal United Nations drug control treaty], expand the number of registered bulk manufacturers of marijuana, provided the statutory and treaty requirements are met. Among these requirements would be a determination by DEA (in consultation with NIDA) that the current NIDA contractor (the University of Mississippi) is unable to meet the demands of lawful researchers in the United States.
With the potency of NIDA cannabis approaching nowhere near that of street weed, it’s been clear for a while that the University of Mississippi can’t keep up with the pro growers of illicit markets. Could the feds be signaling a new willingness to issue new licenses, despite rejecting such a petition only three years ago? It’s not clear, but the letter does include this gem:
While we cannot forecast the future interests of researchers, if such researchers required additional strains of marijuana that the University of Mississippi is unable to supply [i.e., not the weak stuff – Ed.], this could provide a basis for DEA to register additional growers.
Judge for yourself, but to me it looks like they’re practically telegraphing the bureaucratic secret sauce to turn the wheels of Washington. So while this summer’s announcement may likely fall far short of the pipe dream of legalization advocates, there can be no doubt: the scent of reform is in the air.