On Friday, July 10th, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 6, the 21st Century Cures Act (244-183). The bill is now in the Senate for consideration. There had been an amendment proposed that would have rescheduled marijuana and its derivatives under a new 1-R schedule, which would have facilitated research. Marijuana could then have been rescheduled further, after that research was completed and further reclassification was warranted. The National Institute of Health (NIH) and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) were also directed in the amendment to study the benefits and risks of medical marijuana. But the bipartisan amendment was defeated. The irony is that both critics and supporters of legalizing marijuana put forth the failed amendment.
Reporting for the Washington Post, Aaron Davis said that House Republicans have consistently defended their opposition to marijuana laws, saying there is no evidence that such action would do anything “but destroy the brains of the nation’s adolescents.” But the lack of evidence can be traced to Congressional resistance to fund federal agencies to do objective testing on the effects of marijuana. This “Catch 22” led to the support of the amendment by critics and supporters of legalization.
Maryland Representative Andy Harris, a doctor and outspoken critic of legalization over the past two years, co-sponsored the amendment. Before the House Rules Committee sidelined the amendment, he said: “We need science to clearly determine whether marijuana has medicinal benefits and, if so, what is the best way to gain those benefits.” Harris reportedly doesn’t think that research will find medical benefits, but another Republican, H. Morgan Griffith of Virginia, thinks there are limited circumstances in which marijuana has medical benefits. He said: “This amendment would have answered the question one way or the other. I think it would have shown it is a valuable medical substance, but now we don’t have the evidence.”
The failed effort put advocates for marijuana legislation in the odd position of having to praise Harris, who had become a nemesis of their cause. Michael Collins, the policy manager for the pro-marijuana Drug Policy Alliance, said: “To Mr. Harris’s credit, he thinks there are benefits to researching marijuana, whether you support it or not.” Opponents to legalization of marijuana also see research as a logical step forward. Sue Rusche, head of the National Families in Action, a drug prevention organization, said: “Right now we really don’t know what you’re getting. What we need is research to show us what level of CBD and THC should be given and what’s safe.”
Back in January of 2014, President Obama said it was up to Congress, not his administration, to reschedule marijuana. Steven Nelson, reporting for US News and World Report, said that marijuana advocates said that wasn’t entirely accurate. Representative Earl Blumenauer from Oregon said the law actually permits the current administration to reclassify marijuana. “I don’t dispute that Congress could and should make the change, but it’s also something the administration could do in a matter of days and I hope they will consider it.” Rep. Blumenauer is one of 17 cosponsors of other legislation aimed at reclassifying marijuana, the “Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act.” There has been no action reported on the bill at this point. Govtrack.us said the bill had a 3% chance of getting past committee, and a 1% chance of being enacted. Blumenauer has introduced “The Marijuana Tax Act,” also listed as having a 1% chance of being enacted by Govtrack.us.
Tom Angell, chairman of the group, Marijuana Majority, said it was unfortunate that President Obama “passed the buck” to Congress on marijuana. Dan Riffle, the director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, said that rescheduling marijuana “is not a ‘job for Congress,’ as the president says.” Riffle said that scheduling decisions are handled by the DEA. In June of 2014, Anna Edney for Bloomberg Business reported that the FDA had been asked by the DEA to review marijuana’s status. This is the third time since 2001. In 2001 and 2006 the FDA recommended that marijuana remain a Schedule 1 Controlled Substance.
Douglas Throckmorton, the Deputy Director for Regulatory Programs at the FDA, acknowledged the FDA was once again conducting an analysis, but could not say when the FDA would complete its analysis or whether it would recommend a change. His testimony before a House subcommittee described the FDA’s role in potentially approving marijuana as a prescription drug. Dr. Throckmorton affirmed the FDA’s belief that its drug approval process was “the best way to ensure that safe and effective new medicines from marijuana are available as soon as possible for the largest numbers of patients.” He added that it was important to apply these scientific standards to the development and assessment of any alleged therapeutic uses of marijuana.
One of the considerations with establishing the safety and efficacy of a drug is a manufacturer’s ability to demonstrate an ability to consistently manufacture a high-quality drug product. This presents a special challenge with botanically derived drugs like marijuana, including the consistency of lot-to-lot potency. Another consideration is the need to identify a method of consistently providing a specific drug dose. Citing a report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM), Throckmorton noted problems associated with getting consistent dosing from smoked products such as marijuana. The IOM recommended that clinical trials involving marijuana be conducted to find a safe, alternative delivery system.
If there is any future for marijuana as a medicine, it lies in its isolated components, the cannabinoids and their synthetic derivatives. Isolated cannabinoids will provide more reliable effects than crude plant mixtures. Therefore, the purpose of clinical trials of smoked marijuana would not be to develop marijuana as a licensed drug but rather to serve as a first step toward the development of nonsmoked rapid-onset cannabinoid delivery systems.
Throckmorton then cited two drugs approved for human use that contain active ingredients that are present or similar to those in botanical marijuana: Marinol and Cesamet.
These products have undergone FDA’s rigorous approval process and have been determined to be safe and effective for their respective indications, and reflect the views of the IOM that the future of marijuana as a potential medicine lies in classical pharmacological drug development. As a result, patients who need medication can have confidence that any approved drug will be safe and effective for its indicated uses.
So here’s what I’m thinking. When the 21st Century Cures Act is reviewed by the Senate, it needs a provision that will add the changes proposed by the Griffth-Harris-Blumenauer-Farr amendment. This would bring future research into medical marijuana under the authority of the FDA. Effective regulations for the safety and efficacy of medical marijuana can be developed. All states, those who have already approved the use of medical marijuana and those in the future who may approve it, would benefit from the standardization of FDA regulation. The existing problems with medical marijuana (see “Let’s Not Get Ahead of Ourselves”) such as biological and chemical contaminants, accurate labeling, overmedication, and consistent dosing in products could be worked out. The at times outrageous claims for exactly what marijuana DOES medically treat can be examined systematically and scientifically.
But I’m also thinking that isn’t what some legalization advocates want, because it will take time; and the momentum towards recreational marijuana legalization could be lost. The best path to legalization is to let the political infighting in Congress and federal agencies like the FDA and the DEA continue to neutralize any federal regulation of medical marijuana while marijuana activists continue their state-by-state battle. If I wanted to develop a strategy for national legalization of marijuana, I’d suggest the following.
The strategy for eventual national legalization of recreational marijuana is to eat the elephant one bite at a time. Keep the battles going state-by-state and keep the federal government out of the fight. Legislatures within the states where medical marijuana is not yet approved should hear about the income and health benefits of legalizing medical marijuana, but not the existing problems where it has been approved. Information on the different kinds of cannabinoids in marijuana and their varying medical benefits—some greater than others—needs to be suppressed. Let them think the medical benefits are all or nothing with marijuana and not contingent upon specific cannabinoids within marijuana. The known health problems from smoking marijuana should be minimized or ridiculed. If I wanted a sound national policy toward medical marijuana, I’d look for the following developments.
The best strategy to slow and perhaps stop the growth of state-by-state legalization of recreational marijuana is to be proactive about the legalization of medical marijuana at the federal level. Quality research that showed the medical benefits of specific cannabinoids, like CBD and THC, the psychoactive cannabinoid in marijuana needs to be done. A more efficient delivery system for medical marijuana than smoking an herbal product of varying potency, with possible biological and chemical contaminants could be developed. The sideshow of existing medical marijuana “treatment” as an excuse to legally medicate (and overmedicate) with THC to get high would stop. Individuals who could benefit from legitimate medicinal marijuana products would get the help they need. And the recreational advocates couldn’t hide behind the medical marijuana movement anymore.