The DEA is the gatekeeper for medical cannabis research in the US. The Biden Administration has a historic opportunity to change that – and they simply have to do so

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At l … o … n … g last the stage is set for sweeping cannabis reform in the United States.

Senate leaders announced this week that federal legal reform will be a Biden administration priority and that draft legislation will be forthcoming in a matter of weeks.

The legislation will be grounded on the MORE Act, passed by the House this December. It aims to remedy injustice caused by the devastating disproportionate impact of the war on drugs, and to stimulate business and job growth in a flourishing new industry, especially urgent during these pandemic times.

The Act would do one other thing and it’s crucial: Deschedule cannabis.

Quick background:

Cannabis is made illegal by the federal Controlled Substances Act. It places all outlawed drugs into one of five categories or Schedules. Schedule 1 is the most serious as those drugs have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” It includes the likes of heroin and LSD – and cannabis.

Second, it’s (solely) the Drug Enforcement Administration who can move drugs from one Schedule to another or remove them – deschedule them – altogether. That happens when research establishes a medical benefit.

Third, there’s only one source of cannabis in the entire country for researchers who want to get hold of it to look into it’s therapeutic potential. It’s grown on a cannabis farm run by the Univ of Mississippi. And it’s the DEA who review research applications to decide who gets access to it.

The worldwide jury came back on the medical benefits of cannabis a long time ago. That’s why the House passed the MORE Act and why senate leaders such as majority leader Chuck Schumer are on board.

But there’s one guy who apparently isn’t: President Joe Biden. While he’s on board with decriminalization and social justice reform, he doesn’t want to deschedule cannabis. Instead, he’d rather move it down a notch to Schedule 2, defined as those “drugs with a high potential for abuse [and] considered dangerous,” such as cocaine and meth.

Which would still leave cannabis under the control of the DEA – and there’s the rub.

A health subcommittee of the US House of Representatives conducted hearings last year on how to resolve a Catch-22 problem that has plagued cannabis policy for decades. US researchers are told by the DEA that they’d be happy to deschedule cannabis if they demonstrate medical benefit. But DEA bias and a byzantine bureaucracy deny meaningful access to the plant. Chemical and Engineering News summarized the DEA problem this way:

The Schedule I classification means that researchers must jump through all sorts of hoops, including seeking approval from three federal agencies, to study cannabis. The DEA can change how cannabis is categorized or take it off controlled substance schedules entirely if it has sufficient scientific evidence to justify the change, but researchers are impeded from doing the work that might provide such evidence because of the drug’s Schedule I status.

“Impeded”?

As C&EN reports, the DEA has no business being involved in scientific research:

The DEA is not a public health or a scientific organization and has much different priorities and expertise than those organizations. The DEA doesn’t have expertise related to facilitating research and is not in a good position to judge what research is necessary and appropriate. … they are not the appropriate agency to be charged with being the gatekeeper for research production.

Instead, C&EN suggests, scientists – not cops – at the National Institutes of Health or some other agency within the Department of Health and Human Services would be better suited to oversee cannabis produced for research.

But let’s assume the DEA looks kindly on some researcher and she manages to jump through the hoops of the 3 federal agencies involved – the DEA, FDA, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse – what does she get for her years of effort trying to source the plant?

“Crappy pseudo-cannabis,” according to cannabis expert and Harvard Medical School instructor Peter Grinspoon, MD:

Or as the National Academy of Sciences put it back in 2017, federally sourced cannabis is fatally flawed:

federally produced cannabis may have been harvested years earlier, is stored in a freezer (a process that may affect the quality of the product), and often has a lower potency than cannabis sold in state-regulated markets. In addition, many products available in state-regulated markets (e.g., edibles, concentrates, oils, wax, topicals) are not commonly available through federal sources. Since the products available through the federal system do not sufficiently reflect the variety of products used by consumers, research conducted using cannabis provided by [the Univ. of Miss.] may lack external validity.

“May lack external validity” is, of course, science-speak for saying the cannabis is virtually useless for research purposes.

So have we missed out on anything by not being able to meaningfully investigate the therapeutic potential of cannabis? For instance, could we have been on the way to developing novel and effective cancer therapeutics?

A study published in Frontiers in Pharmacology speaks to the extraordinary potential of cannabis to treat multiple cancers. It concludes that CBD and THC and their synthetic analogs are effective anticancer agents against a “wide spectrum of tumor cells.”

Cannabinoids, they report, can arrest cancer in 5 ways. Besides killing cancer cells they can also halt tumor growth, shrink tumors, prevent their spread, and prevent the growth of nearby blood vessels without which the tumor dies for want of oxygen and nutrients.

And they do something that’s astounding. Unlike chemotherapy and certainly radiation therapy, these agents selectively target cancer cells and leave normal cells alone: “Interestingly, phytocannabinoids such as ∆9-THC … have shown selective toxicity toward cancer cells versus their non-transformed counterparts.”

That information was published two years ago and underwent peer review by independent scientists in the UK and Italy. The research itself was conducted by a team of scientists at the Institute of Medicinal Chemistry in Spain, a member institution of the Spanish Research Council. Translation: it’s world class work.

Work that we should have been doing here. Instead, we’ve got drug cops running the show.

And it’s very hard to understand why Joe Biden would choose to keep it that way.

Remember the “Cancer Moonshot“?

In President Obama’s final State of the Union address in Jan 2016, he asked Vice President Biden to lead a Moonshot to help end cancer as we know it. To take the best and brightest across the medical and research communities and “increase access to treatment, improve care, help find a cure, and unleash new breakthroughs.”

It made sense. Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide, and nearly every American is affected by it either personally or through a family or friend – and that includes Joe Biden. Tragically, his eldest son, Beau, who was known to be very close to his father (video below), had died of brain cancer just the year before at age 46.

The world’s leading science research journal, Nature, published a highly complementary editorial about President Joe Biden the other day, praising his wisdom in putting science front and center in his administration:

US President Joe Biden is restoring leading scientists, as well as science-policy and science-diplomacy specialists, to positions of responsibility and influence. …

It’s a relief to see so much expertise back in government. Biden tapped Eric Lander, a mathematician and genomics pioneer, to be his presidential science adviser and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). This is the highest-ranking scientific position in the US government. It is notable that, for the first time in US history, the head of the OSTP will sit in the cabinet alongside holders of influential ministerial portfolios such as the secretary of state and the treasury secretary. …

Putting science, as well as climate, racial and social justice at the heart of national decisions is something that few — if any — of the world’s governments have tried. …

The president has raised expectations. He has an extraordinarily ambitious agenda to elevate science, protect some of the most vulnerable groups, bring the pandemic to heel and tackle dangerous climate change.

President Biden has indeed raised expectations because of his unprecedented, courageous, and wise decision to do “something that few — if any — of the world’s governments have tried”: he has put science at the heart of his presidency.

If that’s true, then something else has to be true as well: Joe Biden will deschedule cannabis and place the decision making for the study of if its seemingly vast medical potential where it belongs – in the hands of the formidable team of scientists he has selected and who form the very core of his administration.

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