Cannabis law and policy

No, Holder is not acting “lawlessly” by accomodating legal pot in CO and WA, or by keeping pot in Schedule I.

Bloomberg just posted my essay about  the federal response to cannabis legalization in Colorado and Washington State and about the “rescheduling” issue, both of which have been the subject of rather confused debate.

Short version: No, the law doesn’t require the feds to shut down the Colorado and Washington State initiatives, and “rescheduling” cannabis would be a mostly pointless exercise; it’s much more important to remove bureaucratic barriers to medical research.

That essay doesn’t include one item on which the discussion has been especially confused: the claim that the President, by himself, has the power to reschedule. In fact, the Controlled Substances Act gives that power to the Attorney General, and requires that the AG get medical advice from the Secretary of HHS and take that advice as authoritative.  The AG has delegated his responsibility to the DEA Administrator, and the HHS secretary has delegated hers to the Assitant Secretary for Health.

Those powers are not arbitrary:  the law says that rescheduling requires an “accepted medical use,” and the courts have held that to mean the satisfaction of each of five criteria:

                        a.    the drug’s chemistry is known and reproducible;

                        b.    there are adequate safety studies;

                        c.    there are adequate and well-controlled studies proving efficacy;

                        d.    the drug is accepted by qualified experts; and

                        e.    the scientific evidence is widely available.

[Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics v. DEA, 15 F.3d 1131, 1135 (D.C. Cir. 1994)]

Arguably, the AG and HHS Secretary could decide to change that legal standard; the courts, having deferred to administrative discretion in the earlier case, might do so again. But it’s not as simple as someone saying, “Gee, I’d like to reschedule cannabis this morning.” And though the President appoints the officials in question and can fire them, the power under the law does not belong to the President.

Moreover, the law explicitly requires that any substance covered by the international drug conventions – which marijuana is – be controlled, regardless of any other factors. Thus the Executive Branch as a whole lacks the power to remove cannabis from the CSA entirely.

Since Jacob Sullum and his friends get their feelings terribly hurt when I point out that he’s talking through his hat, and since I purely hate hurting people’s feelings, I won’t mention him here. That will save him the effort of once again misrepresenting not only the law but what I said about the law, and about his misunderstanding of it.   But the next time he decides to accuse the President – who in real life was a law professor – of not having read the law, perhaps Sullum will consider … reading the law.

Footnote Eighteen members of Congress seem to share this misundestanding, which Americans for Safe Access – the lobby for the medical-marijuana industry – is doing its best to promote.

 

 

 

Futile pursuits: chasing rainbows and rescheduling cannabis

Rescheduling cannabis wouldn’t accomplish anything: the key is to get the feds out of the way of research.

The discussion of “rescheduling” marijuana is confused because most of the people engaged in it don’t know how the law works.

Jacob Sullum, always willing to let his ignorance be the measure of other people’s knowledge, utterly unwilling to let mere facts get in the way of libertarian ideology, and eager to please his paymasters by slagging a Democratic President, illustrates my point in his response to the latest CNN Obama interview.

Rather than reviewing the bidding about who said what, let me simply lay out the actual state of affairs.

The Controlled Substances Act is a law. It cannot be changed by administrative fiat. That law provides that any substance with abuse potential be put into one of five schedules. Schedule I is for drugs without accepted medical use. Schedules II-V are for drugs with accepted medical use but with abuse potential, with less abusable drugs placed in the lower schedules. Alcohol and tobacco, both highly abusable drugs with no accepted medical use, would be Schedule I, but they are explicitly exempted in the text of the law:

The term [controlled substance] does not include distilled spirits, wine, malt beverages, or tobacco.

“Marihuana,” by contrast, is placed by name in Schedule I. That placement tracks its treatment in the international conventions governing drug policy.

Yes, authority to reschedule cannabis lies with the Administration. If the DEA Administrator decided that the drug had “accepted medical use,” that would move it to Schedule II, making cannabis legally available by prescription. Selling it without a prescription would remain the same crime it is today. (Recall that cocaine and methamphetamine are Schedule II drugs.)

But prescriptions can only be written for FDA-approved drugs. And the FDA can’t approve “marijuana,” because “marijuana” isn’t something that can be put through clinical trials. The New Drug Application would have to be for a specific cannabis preparation, to be given in a specific dosage regimen via a specific route of administration for the treatment of a specific condition. That “new drug” could be a single molecule a combination, an herbal preparation, or an extract. In any case, it would have to have a known and reproducible chemical composition and be produced using “Good Manufacturing Practice.” Producing cannabis without FDA approval would still be the illegal manufacture of a Schedule II controlled substance.

So administrative rescheduling would not make “medical marijuana,” or any other kind, legal at the federal level. Its practical effect would be identically zero.

What’s actually needed in the way of administrative action is to get the DEA and the Public Health Service out of the way of medical research, by breaking the University of Mississippi monopoly on research cannabis and eliminating the requirement that researchers using cannabis (but no other controlled drug) have the material “granted” to them by a federal agency rather than just going out and buying it. The Obama Administration can and should be criticized for not having taken those steps.

But “rescheduling” is a red herring dragged across the trail of policy reform.

Update Tom Angell’s feelings are hurt because I was mean to poor widdle Jacob Sullum. And he insists that I mention that, if marijuana were downscheduled to Schedule III rather than Schedule II (a scheduling decision that wouldn’t make much sense, given that something more than 2 million people in the U.S. meet diagnostic criteria for cannabis abuse or dependency at any one time), marijuana sellers would be able to deduct their business expenses in calculating their federal income taxes. Since that trivial impact on the cannabis problem isn’t the same as “identically zero impact,” Angell demands that I retract.

OK. Rescheduling to the appropriate schedule would have identically zero impact, but excessive downscheduling could somewhat increase the after-tax incomes of marijuana retailers and perhaps lead to slightly lower retail cannabis prices in state-legal stores.