DEA Considers Rescheduling Marijuana Years After Rejecting Colorado's Request

In a letter to federal lawmakers on view below, the Drug Enforcement Administration states that it is looking into the possible rescheduling of marijuana and will announce a decision during the first half of the year — meaning, presumably, that we should hear something by the end of June.

This pledge comes more than four years after Colorado formally asked that the agency take such action — a request the DEA took nine long months to reject out of hand.

Some background: Even though 23 states and the District of Columbia have laws allowing marijuana to be used for medical purposes, the DEA considers the substance to be a Schedule I narcotic — meaning that it offers no known or acknowledged medical benefit. Other Schedule I narcotics include heroin, whereas Schedule II lists the likes of cocaine and opium — drugs pretty much everyone with a working brain understands to be much more dangerous than cannabis.

Nonetheless, in June 2012, then-DEA administrator Michele Leonhart refused to acknowledge it during questioning by Colorado Representative Jared Polis at a Congressional hearing.

Here's video of that exchange.

The previous year, a passage from House Bill 1284, which set up a regulatory system for medical marijuana in Colorado, required state officials to ask the federal government to consider moving marijuana to a different schedule.

As such, Director of Revenue Barbara Brohl sent a letter to Leonhart on December 22, 2011.

The DEA's reply was a long time coming. The documents shared with us in 2012 by the Department of Revenue are stamped with two dates: September 6 and October 10, with the latter supplemented by the word "received."

Moreover, they weren't written by Leonhart. Instead, she appears to have farmed out this duty to Joseph Rannazzisi, the deputy assistant administrator for the DEA's Office of Diversion Control. And there was something else strange about the letters, one of which is shared in this post. Although the text was identical in each, the signatures were different.

The opening paragraph of the missives pointed out that the DEA would be "evaluating" a prior request to reschedule marijuana by two governors, Washington's Christine Gregoire and Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee. From there, Rannazzisi wrote:
"It should be noted that the levels of marijuana use in the United States are steadily increasing. According to the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 17.4 million Americans aged 12 years and older reported using marijuana in the past month. In 2010, approximately 2.4 million Americans aged 12 years and older used marijuana for the first time, which is an average of approximately 6,600 new users every day. According to the 2011 Monitoring the Future report, the number of current users of marijuana among 8th, 10th and 12th graders was at peak levels, the highest since 2002. In 2011, daily marijuana use markedly increased among all three grade levels compared to 2009 data."
Critics of federal marijuana policy will recognize this approach as the save-the-children tack used by the federal government for many years. Activists have long countered that rescheduling marijuana would have no effect on its availability to children.

Rannazzisi then went on to cite figures suggesting a "sharp rise" in the number of emergency room visits related to marijuana — factors that "contribute to the significant strain of marijuana use on our healthcare system" that "pose a considerable threat to the health and safety of the users, their families, and the communities as a whole." He closed by reiterating, as if anyone was confused, that "under Federal law, marijuana remains a Schedule I substance with no currently accepted medical use."

It's too soon to tell if the DEA, now led by Chuck Rosenberg, will react similarly to the rescheduling question. But once again, the agency appears to be dragging its feet.

The aforementioned letter includes questions put to the agency, and the one pertaining to an "assessment of marijuana rescheduling" is scathing. The lawmakers note that they asked about a timeline for the Food and Drug Administration "to complete its analysis on the rescheduling of marijuana and to make a recommendation to DEA. We also asked what the DEA timeline was for assessment upon receipt of FDA recommendation."

However, this passage goes on, "these questions were not answered" — so the lawmakers posed them again.

In response, the DEA confirmed that it had received scientific and medical evaluations "and is currently reviewing these documents and all other relevant data to make a scheduling determination."

As for a timeline, the agency concedes that "DEA understands the widespread interest in the prompt resolution of these petitions and hopes to release its determination in the first half of 2016."

Let's hope this promise is actually kept.

Look below to see the DEA letter, which deals with plenty of other marijuana-related matters in addition to rescheduling. That's followed by the agency's rejection of Colorado's request in 2012 and the DEA's controlled substances schedule as of that year.

DEA Response to Lawmakers' Marijuana Questions

DEA Marijuana Reclassification Response Version 1

DEA Controlled Substances Schedule

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts