For four decades, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has systematically obstructed medical research and rejected scientific evidence. It’s increasingly clear that entrusting decisions involving medical science to the DEA is akin to leaving the fox in charge of the henhouse. And what’s most striking is how little scrutiny the DEA has faced from Congress or other federal overseers.
Tomorrow, members of Congress, scientific experts, medical marijuana patients and others will join us in a teleconference that will accompany the release of a new report co-published by MAPS and the Drug Policy Alliance called “The DEA: Four Decades of Impeding and Rejecting Science.”
Since the days of the Nixon administration, federal officials have described the drug classification process as based on science and evidence. But the DEA’s actions strongly indicate that their decision-making has everything to do with politics and little to do with science.
Under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) of 1970, the DEA’s powers include not just the ability to enforce federal drug laws, but the authority to schedule drugs and license facilities for the production and use of scheduled drugs in federally-approved research. The DEA is statutorily required to make its determinations based on scientific data. There is no indication in the legislative record that the CSA intended for drug classification to be a one-way ratchet, with only tighter controls ever envisioned. Nor was there any indication that the DEA’s decision-making process was intended to be an entirely political process.
Despite substantial evidence confirming marijuana’s medical benefits, the DEA has opposed any efforts to reform federal policy to reflect this. At the same time, the DEA has essentially blocked the FDA drug development route for marijuana by making it extremely difficult for researchers to obtain marijuana for clinical trials.
The federal government maintains a monopoly on the production of only one drug: marijuana. Researchers who want to conduct clinical trials of its therapeutic value are typically frustrated by bureaucratic obstacles. In 2007, a DEA Administrative Law Judge ruled that this decades-long monopoly was harmful to the public interest and should end – but the head of the DEA, Michele Leonhart, rejected the ruling.
The DEA’s decades of obstructing medical marijuana research has caused immeasurable suffering that would otherwise have been treated by low-cost, low-risk generic marijuana.
The only silver lining is that the DEA’s obstruction of the FDA approval route has catalyzed state-level marijuana reforms. In a series of historic votes late last month, the U.S. House approved a bipartisan measure prohibiting the DEA from undermining state medical marijuana laws, as well as two amendments prohibiting the DEA from interfering with state hemp laws. The votes were seen as a rebuke to the DEA and DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart, who is under increasing pressure to step down.
Our report’s case studies reveal a number of DEA practices that maintain the existing, scientifically-unsupported drug scheduling system and obstruct research that might alter current drug schedules:
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 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.
Our report also examines the DEA's speed in moving to ban MDMA, synthetic cannabinoids, and synthetic stimulants. In contrast to the DEA's failure to act in a timely fashion when confronted with evidence for scheduling certain drugs less severely, the agency has shown repeatedly that it can move quickly when it wants to prohibit a substance.
We recommend that responsibility for determining drug classifications and other health determinations should be completely removed from the DEA and transferred to another agency, perhaps even a non-governmental entity such as the National Academy of Sciences. We also recommend 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.
The DEA is a police and propaganda agency. It makes no sense for it to be in charge of federal decisions involving scientific research and medical practice, especially when its successive directors have systematically abused their discretionary powers in this area. The time is long past for a top-to-bottom review of this rogue agency.
Ethan Nadelmann is executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. Rick Doblin is executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS).