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DEA Ignores Science, Obstructs Research, New Report Finds [FEATURE]

[Full disclosure: I researched and wrote most of this report and was paid by DPA to do so.]

In a report released this week, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) reveal a decades-long pattern of the DEA ignoring scientific evidence and systematically obstructing medical research that could lead to the rescheduling of marijuana.

The report comes just days after the House issued a stinging rebuke to the DEA by approving a bipartisan measure that bars the use of federal taxpayer dollars for the DEA to undermine medical marijuana in states where it is legal. The House also approved measures stripping the DEA's ability to interfere with hemp production in states where it is legal.

While the report found that the DEA tends to move with excruciating slowness when confronted with evidence that confounds its ideological predispositions, the agency is able and willing to move at lightning speed to criminalize more drugs or schedule them more restrictively.

The report, The DEA: Four Decades of Impeding and Rejecting Science, uses a number of case studies to unveil DEA practices to maintain the existing, scientifically unsupported drug scheduling system. They include:

Failing to act in a timely fashion. The DEA took 16 years to issue a final decision rejecting the first marijuana rescheduling petition, five years for the second, and nine years for the third. In two of the three cases, it took multiple lawsuits to force the agency to act.

Overruling DEA Administrative Law Judges. DEA Administrative Law Judges are government officials charged with evaluating the evidence on rescheduling and other matters before the DEA and making recommendations based on that evidence to the DEA Administrator. In the cases of the scheduling of marijuana and MDMA, the judges determined that that they should be placed in Schedule II instead of Schedule I, where they would be regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as prescription medicines, but still retain criminal sanctions for non-medical uses. However, agency administrators overruled their Administrative Law Judges' recommendations, substituting their own judgments and ignoring scientific evidence. The current DEA head, Michelle Leonhart, also rejected a DEA Administrative Law Judge ruling that the DEA end its unique and unjustifiable monopoly on the supply of research-grade marijuana available for federally approved research.

Creating a regulatory Catch-22. The DEA has argued for decades that there is not sufficient evidence to support rescheduling marijuana or the medical use of marijuana. At the same time, it has -- along with the National Institute on Drug Abuse -- acted in a manner intended to systematically impede scientific research. Through the use of such tactics, the DEA has repeatedly and consistently demonstrated that it is more interested in maintaining existing drug laws than in making important drug control decisions based on scientific evidence.

The report makes two central recommendations: 1) that the responsibility for determining drug classifications and other health determinations should be completely removed from DEA and transferred to another agency, perhaps even a non-governmental entity such as the National Academy of Sciences, and 2) that the DEA should be ordered to end the federal government's unjustifiable monopoly on the supply of research-grade marijuana available for federally approved research. No other drug is available from only a single governmental source for research purposes.

Rep. Steven Cohen (D-TN) (congress.gov)
"The DEA abuses its discretionary powers over scheduling, making it incredibly difficult for researchers to obtain marijuana for research purposes," said DPA executive director Ethan Nadelmann during a Wednesday teleconference to announce the report. "Our recommendations call for taking the power over drug scheduling away from the DEA. It is essentially a police and propaganda agency. This authority would be better handled by another government agency in the health realm, or a truly independent agency, like the National Academy of Sciences," he said.

"The DEA and Ms. [Michele] Leonhart have constantly been opposing any science that would change her mindset and opinion, which was apparently created around 1937," said Rep. Steven Cohen (D-TN), referencing the year federal marijuana prohibition began. "She is totally against marijuana, she will not admit that it is not as harmful as heroin or cocaine, and she is on a war on drugs."

Cohen was the author of another successful amendment that spanked the DEA. His successful amendment redirected $5 million in DEA funding to instead be used to help reduce a back log of rape kits that need testing. He said he was happy to be part of the congressional effort to restrict the agency.

"I was thrilled to be part of that coalition," Cohen said. "Those amendments to the appropriations bill were a great victory. We've been voting on this since 2007, and we always had about 165 Democrats on board, and a few more this time. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) did a great job getting Republicans on board; he got some of the younger, more libertarian members and members who know people marijuana has helped."

"The DEA has opposed efforts to reform federal scheduling policy to acknowledge that marijuana has medical purposes," said Dr. Carl Hart, a Columbia University neuroscientist. "As someone who has studied marijuana, this concerns me. That the DEA has not rescheduled marijuana seems to go against all the scientific evidence and against a society that uses empirical evidence."

MAPS executive director Rick Doblin said his organization, acting as a non-profit pharmaceutical company, had been trying for 22 years to develop Schedule I drugs like marijuana into FDA-approved medications, but that the DEA and other federal agencies had made that impossible.

DEA Administrator Leonhart is on the hot seat. (usdoj.gov/dea)
"Twenty-two years later, I've been unable to start a single, privately-funded study, and the main reason is the DEA's refusal to open the door," he said. "The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has a DEA-protected monopoly on the production of marijuana for research, and although we've had two protocols approved by the FDA and review boards, we have been unable to obtain marijuana. We tried for seven years to buy 10 grams of marijuana for vaporizer studies; we were unable to do that. We've been in litigation with the DEA for 12 years and lost on the grounds that NIDA had an adequate supply."

One study -- of marijuana's efficacy in treating PTSD -- has been approved, Doblin said, but even there, the process has been painfully slow.

"We started trying to get that approved four years ago," he said. "We finally got approval from NIDA in March of this year, but they say they won't have the marijuana we need until January 2015."

For Doblin, it's all about ending NIDA's monopoly on marijuana for research purposes.

"DEA is protecting the NIDA monopoly, which should be ended," he said. "That's the action item we should be doing right now."

The DEA has been politically bulletproof since it was created by the Nixon White House in 1973. But that is changing, DPA national affairs director Bill Piper argued.

"When you look at Congress, with so many members driven by frustration that the DEA is blocking research and preventing medical marijuana from moving forward, that's a big reason the House voted for those amendments," he said. "The DEA has said that marijuana is not approved by the FDA, but Congress has figured out that DEA is blocking the necessary trials from moving forward. The more the DEA obstructs the research, the more support there is for changing federal law and cutting the DEA's authority. The days when the DEA can quietly block this stuff are over; they will pay a price if they stand in the way of reform."

Washington, DC
United States

Chronicle AM -- November 7, 2013

Portland's police chief demonstrates why local initiatives are only a start, a new Urban Institute report has ideas for reducing the federal prison population, the Irish parliament rejects marijuana legalization on its first go round, and more. Let's get to it:

Marijuana Policy

Portland Police Chief to Ignore Legalization Initiative Victory. Portland, Maine, voterd Tuesday to legalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, but Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said his officers will continue to issue citations for pot possession under state law. But Sauschuck also said Portland police didn't consider small-time pot possession a high priority even before Tuesday's vote, and the numbers back him up. In the last two 12-month periods, police there have averaged about one pot possession ticket a week.

Medical Marijuana

Medical Marijuana Groups Launch Fundraising Campaign for 2014 Arkansas Initiative. Arkansas medical marijuana advocates Arkansans for Compassionate Care (ACC) have joined forces with the national advocacy group Americans for Safe Access to raise enough money to get the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act initiative on the 2014 ballot. The campaign kicks off Saturday in El Dorado with a concert sponsored by Budweiser (!), which will give a portion of the proceeds to ACC.

Sentencing Reform

Urban Institute Report Says Best Way to Reduce Federal Prison Population is Modify Sentencing, Prosecution Policies. A new report from the Urban Institute, Stemming the Tide: Strategies to Reduce the Growth and Cut the Cost of the Federal Prison System, concludes that "reducing the number of drug offenders is the quickest way to yield an impact on both prison population and cost," and recommends changes in both prosecution ("front end") and sentencing and reentry ("back end") policies.

International

The Silk Road is Back. The anonymous online marketplace notorious as a drug-buying and -selling venue is back up and running. It went down earlier this year when FBI agents arrested its operator, Ross Ulbrict, but was up again as of yesterday.

David Nutt Calls Britain's Drug Laws an Obstacle to Research.Scientist David Nutt, the former head of the Advisory Commission on the Misuse of Drugs, says Britain's drug laws are stifling research into the benefits of drugs like marijuana and Ecstasy. "The UK has gone from being early adopters of evidence based harm reduction -- prescription heroin, needle exchanges and opiate substitute therapy -- to lagging behind many countries across the globe that are modifying their drug policies to better reflect advances in our understanding of drugs," he told Forbes. Nutt, who was fired from the commission over his views on drug policy, recently won the John Maddox Prize, which is awarded for courage in promoting science and evidence on a matter of public interest in the face of hostility.

Irish Parliament Rejects Marijuana Legalization. The Irish Dail (parliament) soundly rejected a bill to legalize marijuana Wednesday. The private member's motion filed by TD Luke "Ming" Flanagan was defeated on a vote of 111-8. Still, the occasion marked the first time the Dail has seriously debated marijuana policy.

Czech Activists Denounce Grow Shop Raids, Plan Protests. The Czech marijuana reform group Legalizace has denounced Monday's mass raids on grow shops as "an absolutely unacceptable and scandalous infringement upon civil rights and freedoms" and is calling for a protest Saturday evening at Prague's Old Town Square.

Iran Drug Executions Continue. The Islamic Republic of Iran is the world's leading executioner of drug offenders, and this month is no different. According to the anti-death penalty group Hands Off Cain, which monitors Iranian press reports, 11 people have been hung for drug offenses so far this month, and we haven't even finished the first week. The annual number of people executed for drug offenses in Iran is in the hundreds.

Drug Prohibitions Hurt Science, Researchers Charge

In a paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience, a group of leading scientists argue that global drug prohibition has not only compounded the harms of drug use, but also produced the worst censorship of research in centuries. They likened the banning of psychoactive drugs and the subsequent hampering of research on them to the Catholic Church banning the works of Copernicus and Galileo.

Prof. David Nutt (gov.uk)
The paper, Effects of Schedule I Drug Laws on Neuroscience Research and Treatment Innovation (abstract only), was written by Professor David Nutt of Imperial College London and Leslie King, both former government advisors, and Professor David Nichols of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

The possession of marijuana, MDMA (ecstasy) and psychedelics are stringently regulated under national laws and international conventions dating back to the 1960s, but those laws are not based on science, and the global prohibition regime is rigid and resistant to change, they argued.

"The decision to outlaw these drugs was based on their perceived dangers, but in many cases the harms have been overstated and are actually less than many legal drugs such as alcohol," said Nutt, professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London. "The laws have never been updated despite scientific advances and growing evidence that many of these drugs are relatively safe. And there appears to be no way for the international community to make such changes."

In the paper, Nutt and his colleagues argue that the scheduling of psychoactive drugs impedes research into their methods of action and therapeutic potentials and sometimes makes it impossible.

"This hindering of research and therapy is motivated by politics, not science," said Nutt. "It's one of the most scandalous examples of scientific censorship in modern times. The ban on embryonic stem cell research by the Bush administration is the only possible contender, but that only affected the USA, not the whole world."

Research in psychoactive drugs should be free of severe restrictions, the scientists argued.

"If we adopted a more rational approach to drug regulation, it would empower researchers to make advances in the study of consciousness and brain mechanisms of psychosis, and could lead to major treatment innovations in areas such as depression and PTSD," Nutt said.

Nutt headed Britain's Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs until 2009, when he was forced out by the Labor government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Nutt was sacked after publicly criticizing the government for ignoring the committee's scientific advice on marijuana on ecstasy. He then became chair of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, which aims to review and investigate the harms and benefits of drugs free from political interference.

London
United Kingdom

Did You Know? 105 Medical Studies Involving Cannabis and Cannabis Extracts, on ProCon.org

Did you know there were 105 peer-reviewed medical studies involving cannabis and cannabis extracts between 1990 and 2012? Read the details at 105 Peer-Reviewed Studies on Marijuana -- Medical Studies Involving Cannabis and Cannabis Extracts (1990 - 2012), on the web site medicalmarijuana.procon.org, part of the ProCon.org family.

This is the first in a six-part series of ProCon.org teasers being published in Drug War Chronicle. Keep tuning in to the Chronicle for more important facts from ProCon.org the next several weeks, or sign up for ProCon.org's email list or RSS feed.

ProCon.org is a web site promoting critical thinking, education, and informed citizenship by presenting controversial issues in a straightforward, nonpartisan primarily pro-con format.

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