The federal government is considering easing its position on marijuana, reclassifying it as a less dangerous drug in what marijuana advocates say reflects the changing attitudes nationwide.
But drug specialists fear the watershed moment for marijuana research could be a slippery slope for addicts.
The Food and Drug Administration is reviewing marijuana’s classification to consider changing it from a Schedule I drug.
The feds classify drugs in five stages, with Schedule I reserved for the most dangerous drugs with the highest potential for abuse and dependence, and those with no currently accepted medical use.
Other Schedule I heavy hitters include heroin, ecstasy and LSD.
Cocaine and methamphetamine fall into Schedule II drugs.
Paul Armentano specializes in issues regarding the science and research of marijuana at NORML, or National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. He argues that marijuana doesn’t even hold a candle to the other drugs it’s classified with.
“Marijuana is not a harmless substance,” he said. “But, it’s potential risks to the individual and to society do not warrant its present Schedule I illicit status under federal law.”
Health concerns, he said, would best be addressed by regulation, age restrictions and public education.
Although a reclassification wouldn’t make marijuana legal, it could open doors for more medical marijuana research, advocates say.
“The biggest reason that we’re not able to do more with medical cannabis is because of its Schedule I classification,” said Julie Dohm, chairperson of the Illinois chapter of Americans for Safe Access, or ASA, an organization promoting medical marijuana research and therapeutic uses.
“The FDA and DEA keeping saying that [marijuana] has no medical purpose or that it’s dangerous – that’s just false,” Dohm continued. “There are plenty of studies from other countries that can do the types of trials that we can’t here. ... Studies saying it has a medical benefit and it’s a lot safer than a lot of the other drugs we allow people to take.”
At the request of the DEA in 2001 and again in 2006, the FDA conducted a review of the available data for marijuana, and both times recommended that marijuana remain a Schedule I, because of its high potential for abuse, and the fact that it has no accepted medical uses.
However, the determination of whether or not a drug has “accepted medical use” is its FDA approval, Armentano said.
“So one can infer that as long as marijuana remains non-FDA approved, then the agency will affirm its Schedule I classification,” Armentano said.
But Dohm believes this time is different, and she pointed to the 23 states, including Illinois, that have approved marijuana for medical use, with several others considering it. Two states – Colorado and Washington – have approved marijuana for recreational use.
Still, for local substance abuse counselors like McHenry County-based Rick Atwater, the changing laws could send the wrong message. The message that marijuana is harmless simply isn’t true, he said.
“Regardless of how the FDA reclassifies it or if the state says we can use it for certain medical conditions, it’s still not a legal drug and it’s not OK to use it,” Atwater said. “That message isn’t being heard very loudly.
“… [It] doesn’t change the fact that it’s dangerous.”