By Frank G. Vice, DVM, BS Pharm
The Drug Enforcement Agency, DEA, was founded in 1973 during President Richard Nixon’s administration and from the beginning, its mission has been to enforce the controlled substance laws and regulations of the United States. Currently cannabis, often called marijuana, is registered or classified with the DEA as a scheduled l controlled substance, which means the DEA views cannabis as a drug having “no currently accepted medical use.” However, there are thirty states, along with the District of Columbia, which have laws broadly legalizing some use of marijuana. Medical use of marijuana in these states is legally provided under state law, even though the DEA and federal authorities regard any use of marijuana to be illegal. A battle line has been created between what is legal within the state and what is illegal across the nation. Initial attempts to resolve the problem suggest to reschedule marijuana from a schedule l drug to a schedule ll drug which means, as a schedule ll drug, marijuana would remain a highly controlled, but regulated, available medication.
This solution has been presented to the DEA repeatedly, yet continues to be denied following assertions by the DEA, that marijuana, also called cannabis, has no currently accepted medical use in the United States. DEA further states, “The scientific evidence to support its medical use is not widely available”. During the 1930’s, marijuana was receiving negative propaganda for its psychoactive activity. The idea that U.S. citizens might use marijuana created panic with government officials, who felt compelled to control the slow moving, but national illegal, drug activity.
Early legislative control led to the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 which resulted in a prohibitive tax on marijuana as a medication. The tax was imposed on prescribing physicians, dispensing pharmacists, and cannabis farmers, placing restrictions on the cultivation and harvesting of hemp. In those early years there was some confusion in trying to decide what part of cannabis could be used for hemp fiber and what portion produced marijuana. However, in the early 1940’s, for a short while, cannabis cultivation restrictions were removed while the U.S. military needed hemp fiber in preparation for WW ll. Toward the end of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration and following WWll, agricultural hemp cultivation was once again prohibited and cannabis was determined to be a drug of potential abuse, sweeping it into the drug prohibition policies. It was government misunderstanding, and botanical confusion, that swept all cannabis cultivation into the prohibitive growth dilemma, eventually instituting a comprehensive ban on all cannabis growth. The government had fear of allowing a drug culture to become established in America and attempted to regulate abusive drug use with broad enforcement. Even today, the DEA’s ongoing resistance to grant permission to cultivate hemp as an agricultural crop is due to the original “tough on drugs” policy which was developed during the 1970’s. There continues to be a confused relationship between agricultural hemp fiber and recreational or medical use of cannabis.
This governmental regulatory misunderstanding and confusion continues to this day. Hemp is different than marijuana in its function, cultivation and application, but these differences did not stop government officials from classifying all cannabis species as a Schedule l drug, and banning it completely because of the 1970 Controlled Substance Act.
In March 2018, Mitch McConnell, Senate Majority Leader and the most powerful republican on Capitol Hill, signed a bill that could change federal laws which would allow growth of agricultural hemp. In a press conference he stated, “It is time the federal government changes the way it looks at hemp.” He further stated, “It’s time to introduce legislation that will modernize federal laws and empower American farmers to explore promising new markets.” Senator McConnell announced a plan to introduce legislation in the U.S. Senate to support Kentucky’s hemp industry.
The Hemp Farming Act of 2018 would legalize hemp, designating it an agricultural commodity while removing it from the federal list of controlled substances. This ongoing debate clearly demonstrates the need for a greater understanding of the multiple, potential uses for this ancient plant. Industry deserves the freedom to explore hemp’s expanding diversity through all commercial markets.
Currently, growing hemp without a federal permit has long been banned due to its classification as a controlled substance and due to its relationship to marijuana. Hemp and marijuana are harvested from similar cannabis species, but cultivated and harvested hemp has a negligible amount of the psychoactive compound tetrahydrocannabinol. This compound, commonly called THC, gives marijuana its abuse potential. It was not until 1985 that the FDA approved a drug called dronabinol (Marinol), which allowed medicinal cannabinoids to regain some pharmaceutical acceptance. This combination drug has manufactured synthetic THC, combined along with natural occurring cannabinoids, harvested and derived from the cannabis species called Cannabis sativa. This medication was DEA classified as a schedule ll drug under the Controlled Substance Act which allowed physicians to explore its medical potential. It was not until 1992 that it gained its indication for an aid in management for chemotherapy induced nausea and vomiting along with prevention of weight loss due to anorexia.
According to a January 2017 article in The Rx Consultant, Kari Franson writes, “Marijuana has be used thousands of years for medical conditions as well as for recreational purposes.” In the past, cannabis and marijuana were terms used interchangeably, however, cannabis is the more contemporary clinical designation. Research has recently determined an individual cannabis plant may contain over 400 different compounds including 60 compounds known as cannabinoids, all with different pharmaceutical effects. Recently, investigators have determined that chemical cannabinoids are the active components of cannabis, further suggesting that humans as well as most animals have receptors located throughout the body capable of activation by cannabinoid attachment. As medical science progresses in its understanding of this complex attachment mechanism, it has already been determined that some activated receptors cause psychoactive effects, along with appetite stimulation and analgesia, along with a host of other yet to be determined benefits. As the medical community begins to embrace the benefits of cannabinoid use, it appears that the inclusion of many disorders listed as treatable conditions represents a poor correlation between a true medical condition and the quality of evidence for its medicinal effectiveness. The current medical marijuana market is poorly regulated with patients using a controlled substance for illnesses based on anecdotal reports. In states where medical marijuana is sold, the product is dispensed by poorly trained staff, simply handing out a controlled substance to a trusting public. It is strongly suggested that all healthcare providers obtain additional educational information and training in preparation for the potential therapeutic use of cannabis. Medical providers confronted with the challenges of helping to manage
patients who are using cannabis based pharmaceutical should understand the physiological effects as well as the toxicity and addictive potential.
Even though the public is pushing for local and national political support for marijuana legalization, the FDA has yet to approve a plant-based marijuana for any medical condition.
The author wishes to thank the following literary references: The Rx Consultant, January 2017 Medical Marijuana; Kari Franson, Pharma D, PHD,: DEA.gov/History, The Early Years, DEA History in Depth:Drugs, Society, and Human Behavior, second Edition, Ray Oakley.