Beginning next month, Pennsylvania residents with qualifying health conditions will be able to apply for medical marijuana prescriptions and purchase them through approved dispensaries.
“All we are asking here is to have the ability to have that doctor make a decision in conjunction with his or her patient that will make that patient's life better,” Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said Sunday while signing the bill into law.
Pennsylvania is now the 24th state to legalize medical marijuana, a plant the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) currently classifies as having no therapeutic value.
As more states pass laws relaxing their positions on cannabis, President Barack Obama’s administration continues to allow states to make their decisions without federal prosecution while marijuana remains, at least under federal law, one of the most dangerous substances in the land.
While the DEA debates a long-awaited review of the classification of marijuana, some cannabis proponents say memos from the president as well as schedule changes aren’t meaningful long-term solutions.
These policies could quickly change when a new president is sworn into office on Jan. 20.
“It was clear in the later memos that the Obama administration discouraged U.S. attorneys to go after cases that would undermine these state laws,” Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), told Healthline. “In theory, this could change next year.”
What Does a Schedule Change Really Mean?
Currently, marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 substance, along with drugs like heroin, LSD, and ecstasy.
That classification, according to the law, means the substance has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”
Decades of research, however, dispute the notion that marijuana has no medical use.
The Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research (CMCR) and other institutions have found marijuana and its components, namely cannabinoids, to have therapeutic effects related to chronic pain, mood and appetite elevation in cancer patients, among other uses.
Five years ago, several leaders, including governors Christine Gregoire of Washington and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, requested that marijuana be moved from a Schedule 1 to a Schedule 2 drug.
Drugs in that class are considered dangerous and have “a high potential for abuse, with use potentially leading to severe psychological or physical dependence,” according to the DEA.
Other Schedule 2 drugs include cocaine, methamphetamine, and several prescription drugs, including oxycodone.
The DEA’s decision to reclassify marijuana is expected by the end of July. Should the agency change its scheduling designation, it still wouldn’t change how scientists access cannabis for research purposes, Armentano said.
“The reality is that it still keeps in place this intellectual dishonesty that marijuana is a substance of abuse,” he said.
Hurdles in Research
NORML and other groups argue that cannabis should be removed from all five schedules, like alcohol and tobacco, and regulated and taxed the same.
This, they argue, would open up and accelerate more research avenues into marijuana’s potential therapeutic effects.
Under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, the DEA regulates the cultivation of cannabis to be used in research purposes.
Funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), the DEA has only issued a single contract for these purposes. The contract was issued to the University of Mississippi, which had its agreement renewed in 2015.
In order to study marijuana’s therapeutic uses, researchers must get approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the DEA, and NIDA. Other drugs, such as those going into pharmaceuticals, do not have the same number of hurdles.
“That’s an impediment specifically for marijuana,” Armentano said.
Federal Bills Face Resistance
Last year, Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) introduced the “Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2015.“
The law would remove marijuana from the scheduling system as well as allow marijuana-related businesses to use federally insured banks without recourse.
A similar bill, “Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States (CARERS)” was introduced into Congress last year.
Its intent is to decriminalize, re-schedule, and open research applications for cannabis.
Both bills have their detractors.
“The idea of medical marijuana is a joke. It’s an end run around the laws. There are more pot shops in California than there are Starbucks or McDonald’s,” Rep. John Fleming (R-Louisiana) told The Washington Times.
Both the EFMPA and the CARERS Act were referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).
Grassley has a long-standing relationship against rescheduling cannabis “based on the current science on the risks and benefits,” according to the Des Moines Register. He’s been especially vocal about the Obama administration’s lack enforcement of federal laws in marijuana friendly states.
Last year, however, the Senate did pass an amendment allowing Veterans Affairs doctors to prescribe medicinal marijuana to veterans in states that have legalized it.
Armentano said the real changes needed for a comprehensive federal cannabis policy would have to come from Congress. It’s “highly unlikely” that will happen anytime soon, he said.
“The issue is that the science is not guiding public policy,” he said.