The federal government declared Thursday that marijuana, for nearly a half-century lumped in with heroin, LSD and Ecstasy as the most deadly and useless illicit drugs, will remain on that list. At the same time, it eased rules that have limited the use of cannabis in medical research.
The federal government’s opposition to removing marijuana from its so-called Schedule I on the Controlled Substances Act comes as half the nation’s 50 states now allow the use of marijuana in some form, contrary to federal law.
The federal government reconfirmed Thursday that it believes there is insufficient evidence to show that marijuana’s “known risks” outweigh any “specific benefits” its use might offer. The Drug Enforcement Administration concluded that weed has no “currently accepted medical use’” because its “chemistry is not known and reproducible; there are no adequate safety studies; there are no adequate and well-controlled studies proving efficacy; the drug is not accepted by qualified experts; and the scientific evidence is not widely available.”
But the DEA did open the door to more research into marijuana’s medical utility by making it easier for research institutions to grow it. Currently, there is only a single facility in Mississippi that provides a limited amount of marijuana for research, crimping efforts to see if it can help alleviate pain and conditions including cancer, epilepsy and post-traumatic stress disorder. “This change,” the DEA said, “should provide researchers with a more varied and robust supply of marijuana.”
Advocates were disappointed. “The DEA’s refusal to remove marijuana from Schedule I is, quite frankly, mind-boggling,” Marijuana Policy Project spokesman Mason Tvert said in a statement. “Not everyone agrees marijuana should be legal, but few will deny that it is less harmful than alcohol and many prescription drugs.”
Not everyone was disappointed. “Wealthy investors and fierce user-advocates have orchestrated a political campaign to medicalize, legalize and normalize an intoxicating, psychoactive, addictive drug,” Bertha Madras, a Harvard psychiatric biologist who fought drug abuse in President George W. Bush’s White House, told TIME recently. “Believers of its harmless and curative powers have driven state approval for its use as a medicine, in the absence of unbiased scientific evidence or adherence to rigorous drug approval processes.”
Marijuana has been used through history far longer than its use has been barred in the U.S. Its mind-altering qualities led to its use as medicine in ancient China, and in fact, it could legally be prescribed by U.S. doctors until 1942, when the Federal Bureau of Narcotics persuaded the nonprofit U.S. Pharmacopeia to remove it from its list of drugs deemed effective. Prior to that, more than 20 marijuana-based prescription medicines were sold in the U.S. early in the 20th century; between 1937 and 1942 the federal government levied a tax of $1 an ounce on marijuana.
President Nixon viewed marijuana as part of a plot, along with homosexuals and “immorality in general,” against America. “That’s why the Communists and the left-wingers are pushing the stuff,” he said in a 1971 Oval Office meeting with top advisers John Erlichman and H.R. “Bob” Haldeman. “They’re trying to destroy us.”
After Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, declared marijuana a Schedule I substance in 1972, some in the government disagreed. “Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man,” Francis Young, a Drug Enforcement Administration administrative law judge, wrote in 1988. “By any measure of rational analysis marijuana can be safely used within a supervised routine of medical care.”
The American Medical Association urged the DEA to reconsider the Schedule listing in 2009. A 2014 doctors’ survey found 56% of them backed the legal use of marijuana for medical purposes, with 82% of cancer doctors supporting the move. But that Schedule I designation has kept marijuana out of bounds when it came to federal research into its possible use for treatments of cancer, epilepsy and post-traumatic stress disorder.
While it’s nearly impossible to kill yourself with a marijuana overdose (although it is believed to increase the risk of suicide), prescription-opioid overdoses killed 14,000 in the U.S. in 2014. A recent study found that opioid deaths fell an average of 25% in states after medical marijuana use had been legalized. But nothing compares to alcohol, which killed an estimated 88,000 people in the U.S. annually from 2006 to 2010.
At least five U.S. Presidents are believed to have used marijuana, before or during their presidencies, stretching from George Washington to Barack Obama. (The others are James Madison, John Kennedy and Bill Clinton.) JFK used marijuana to ease severe back pain. On the evening of July 16, 1962, he reportedly smoked three joints, and was offered a fourth. “No more,” Kennedy said, according to Washington Post executive Jim Truitt, who said he was there. “Suppose the Russians did something now.”