In response to a letter from seven U.S. Senators including Elizabeth Warren, the DEA has indicated it will review its classification of marijuana as a Schedule I substance within the first half of 2016.
“DEA understands the widespread interest in the prompt resolution to these petitions and hopes to release its determination in the first half of 2016,”
DEA said in a 25-page response.
Warren’s original letter asks the DEA to acknowledge the mainstreaming of medical marijuana. “While the federal government has emphasized research on the potential harms associated with the use of marijuana, there is still very limited research on the potential health benefits of marijuana — despite the fact that millions of Americans are now eligible by state law to use the drug for medical purposes.”
DEA drug scheduling, under the Controlled Substances Act, classifies substances based on their medical uses and potential for abuse. Currently, marijuana is grouped with heroin as a Schedule I substance, a category that is reserved for drugs deemed the most dangerous, highly addictive and of no medicinal value. Comparatively, methamphetamine, cocaine and most prescription painkillers that are currently part the opioid epidemic fall into the Schedule II category, a classification which permits doctors to prescribe them and researchers to access them for studies.
The Reschedule 420 smoke-in demonstration in front of the White House on April 2, 2016 (Photo by John Kagia/Whaxy).
While experts and advocates agree that cannabis should be de-scheduled completely, rescheduling the plant as a Schedule II substance would allow for more collaborative medical research and fewer criminal penalties for possessing marijuana. Currently, medical marijuana research is done on a small scale in the United States or in other countries with favorable legislation.
In their response to lawmakers, the DEA mentions that between 2000-2015, it provided marijuana to researchers at a rate of about 9 per year. The bureaucratic complexity of doing legal cannabis research has led many universities and organizations to abandon it all together.
“That number is totally insufficient to meet public health needs and to answer the number of [research] questions that pop up yearly,”
said John Hudak of the Brookings Institute. “People just aren’t applying because of all the headaches involved.”
While the DEA’s letter might be good news for marijuana advocates, acting DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg made clear last year that he has no intention of rescheduling marijuana, despite promising research, millions of people providing anecdotal evidence and legal medical marijuana programs in 23 states.
“If you want me to say that marijuana’s not dangerous, I’m not going to say that because I think it is. Do I think it’s as dangerous as heroin? Probably not. I’m not an expert,”
said Rosenberg. He later admitted that marijuana is not as harmful as heroin, a nod to the political agenda of drug scheduling. Similar proposals to reschedule cannabis made in 2000 and 2006 were also rejected by the DEA.
“Almost half the states in the country have medical cannabis laws and major groups like the American Nurses Association and the American College of Physicians are on board,” said Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority. He also suggested that the Obama Administration should use executive powers to reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II substance before he leaves office.
Hundreds of peaceful protesters who agree with Angell gathered in front of the White House for one of the largest smoke-in demonstrations in history on Saturday April 2 (click here to see photos from the rally).
Feature photo credit: John Kagia
In a survey conducted by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 76 percent of respondents said alcohol is a serious issue in their communities, more so than any other drug.
In order, respondents ranked alcohol as the most troubling substance, above prescription painkillers, cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin. Marijuana ranked last on the list. These findings are in line with the CDC’s risk assessment of commonly abused substances and how likely a person is to overdose from each substance.
This study highlights what is already knows about substance abuse in the United States. According to the CDC, more Americans are dying from alcohol, opioid and other drug overdoses than from car accidents. None of those deaths can be attributed to an overdose of marijuana. What’s more, the study shows that Americans want more options, research and resources for treating substance abuse (a task that America fails at compared to other countries) and that may be due to 40 percent of respondents knowing someone who suffers from alcohol or other substance abuse.
Although marijuana is lowest on the list, the study suggests Americans aren’t yet comfortable with fully legalizing marijuana. While 61 percent were in favor of cannabis legalization, 43 percent of those respondents wanted restrictions on how much can be purchased at a time, and about 25 percent supported cannabis legalization only in a medical capacity.
In terms of criminalizing drug use, respondents feel as though different races are more or less likely to be convicted of drug crimes, despite a study showing no major correlation between race and substance abuse. 66 percent of respondents felt is was very likely that an African American suffering from drug abuse would be convicted of drug possession, compared to a 55 percent likelihood for Hispanics and a 30 percent likelihood for caucasians.
Americans also think substance abuse occurs more based on location and socioeconomic conditions. Most Americans think substance abuse is more likely to occur in urban areas (53 percent) and that poor people are more likely to be convicted of drug possession (63 percent) compared to middle and upper class Americans.
The findings from the study illustrate the imbalance between the public’s concerns about specific substances, and their potential for abuse, and government priorities and methods for fighting illegal drug use and criminalizing substance abuse.
The consideration of medical cannabis as a treatment therapy for those suffering from alcohol addiction, including abuse and dependence, is rarely discussed. Understandably, diseases like muscular dystrophy, cancer, arthritis, and Crohn’s get most of the attention during debates over the efficacy of cannabis and safe access for patients.
Nevertheless, million of Americans suffer from alcoholism and alcohol-related disorders, including Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) and Alcohol Dependence Syndrome (ADS). Is medical cannabis, which has shown such amazing efficacy for dozens of serious conditions and diseases, up to the task of recovery treatment? Can it help those who have a demonstrated and serious disease like alcoholism to kick the habit?
Addiction: Key to Embracing Cannabis
Much of the controversy over the effectiveness of treating alcoholics with cannabis hinges on whether one perceives the herb to be addictive. Those who are critical of cannabis and its use as a treatment therapy for alcoholism claim that sufferers are merely swapping one addiction for another.
Because science has proven that cannabis is merely habit forming, but not physically addictive in any way, there is a complete lack of withdrawal symptoms. Heroin, prescription opiates, tobacco, and alcohol all are highly addictive at the physical level and offer a slew of undesirable and painful withdrawal symptoms.
It is commonly understood that severe alcoholism is accompanied by significant physical withdrawal symptoms, including seizures, irregular heartbeat, hallucinations, spikes in blood pressure, and tremors (the “shakes”). If untreated, severe alcohol withdrawal syndrome kills one out of three sufferers. Clearly, alcoholism is a public health issue that affects millions of Americans, many of them drinkers, but countless others who are innocent domestic partners, family members, or co-workers.
Cannabis, on the contrary, carries no physical addiction and offers no opportunity for overdose. Smokers and vapers also suffer none of the violent rages that often accompany severe drinking disorders. A nation of tokers will experience dramatically lower rates of domestic violence and child neglect than one populated by chronic use of ethanol in the form of whiskey, vodka, and tequila.
Overdose: Impossible vs. Easy
It must be assumed that some patients will not only leverage cannabis as a therapy to overcome alcoholism, but will also adopt it as part of a new lifestyle. While not all who use marijuana to overcome an opiate or alcohol addiction will continue use of the herb following their successful recovery, the issue of adults “swapping” one chronic behavior for another cannot be avoided.
Fortunately, it is impossible to overdose on cannabis, something that can’t be said of alcohol, opiates, and nearly anything else one might put into their body. In fact, when one considers that a hangover is the body’s response to low-level alcohol poisoning, society’s acceptance of alcohol and drunkenness does nothing to mitigate the fact that heavy drinking is a risky and often deadly activity.
One of the most common methods by which the “danger” inherent in a particular drug is objectively measured within the medical community is the rate at which it kills those who consume it. This is expressed by something called the LD-50 rating, which indicates the dosage necessary to kill 50 percent of test animals “as a result of drug induced toxicity.” In other words, LD-50 indicates a substance’s median lethal dose.
For alcohol, the LD-50 is about 0.40 percent blood alcohol level (BAL). Rutgers University’s Center for Alcohol Studies reports the lethal dose for alcohol to be between 0.40 and 0.50 percent. It should be noted, however, that body weight, metabolism, and several other factors influence how much one can drink before overdose becomes a serious threat.
But what does this mean in practical terms? A 100-pound person who consumed nine to 10 standard drinks in less than an hour would be in the LD-50 range. A more common example is a 200-pound person, who would have to consume only five to six drinks per hour for four hours to reach the LD-50.
In a 1988 ruling, DEA Administrative Law Judge Francis Young detailed the amount of cannabis necessary to achieve a level of toxicity that might cause death in humans:
“At present it is estimated that marijuana’s LD-50 is around 1:20,000 or 1:40,000. In layman terms this means that in order to induce death a marijuana smoker would have to consume 20,000 to 40,000 times as much marijuana as is contained in one marijuana cigarette. A smoker would theoretically have to consume nearly 1,500 pounds of marijuana within about 15 minutes to induce a lethal response.”
Not convinced? According to the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health,
“Because cannabinoid receptors, unlike opioid receptors, are not located in the brainstem areas controlling respiration, lethal overdoses from cannabis and cannabinoids do not occur.”
Some estimates peg the number of people who die from alcoholism and alcohol-related accidents at two million per year globally. Cannabis, fortunately, has never been responsible for a single death. Despite sensationalistic (and poorly researched) media reports to the contrary, cannabis simply has never taken a life. Instead of a toxin, like alcohol, cannabis is a medicine.
12-Step Programs Not Effective
Unfortunately, 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, or AA (a form of therapy categorized as Twelve Step Facilitation, or TSF) fail to help the majority of alcoholics. It is estimated that more than two-thirds of those enrolled in such programs drop out prior to completion. In the United States, AA estimated that, as of 2013, about one million people regularly attended meetings at one of roughly 60,000 groups across the nation.
According to Dr. Lance Dodes, a retired professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry:
“Peer reviewed studies peg the success rate of AA somewhere between five and 10 percent. About one of every 15 people who enter these programs is able to become and stay sober.”
In 2000, Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly published a report that analyzed AA membership surveys collected between 1968 and 1996. The hard data is striking: 81 percent of newcomers stopped attending AA meetings within the first month. After 90 days, only 10 percent remained. After a year, participation had dwindled to only five percent.
(If you doubt society’s acceptance of unscientific 12-step programs, consider that the approach is applied to more than 300 addiction and psychological disorders, but remember that only five to 10 percent of those who participate in such programs are successful at kicking their addiction and actually staying sober.)
Clearly, a different approach is necessary to help the majority of those afflicted with alcoholism in the form of AUD or ADS who are not served by 12-step programs.
While a stoner stigma continues to plague heavy, daily cannabis users, it can easily be argued that marijuana consumers are not only preventing the damage to their bodies that would result from heavy alcohol consumption — including liver damage, ulcers and gastrointestinal issues, blackouts, heart disease, memory loss, and depression — but that they also are fighting off disease and using the herb in a preventative manner.
From a public health perspective, a nation of stoners is considerably less taxing and expensive than one in which the primary recreational euphoric activity involves the consumption of fermented vegetables and fruits. Mothers Against Drunk Driving should be embracing and endorsing cannabis legalization efforts because they result in markedly lower traffic fatalities and lower teen pregnancy. While preliminary, initial statistics from Colorado are proving that full legalization actually results in lower rates of teen use, less crime, and fewer traffic accidents.
The late Dr. Tod Mikuriya was a strong advocate of medical cannabis for a variety of therapeutic applications, including the treatment of alcohol dependence. Mikuriya published a study in 2004 that involved 92 patients, all of whom had been prescribed cannabis as a treatment for alcohol dependence.
“As could be expected among patients seeking physician approval to treat alcoholism with cannabis, all reported that they’d found it ‘very effective’ (45) or ‘effective’ (38). Efficacy was inferred from other responses on seven questionnaires.”
The report continued:
“Nine patients reported that they had practiced total abstinence from alcohol for more than a year and attributed their success to cannabis. Their years in sobriety: 19, 18, 16, 10, 7, 6, 4 (2), and 2.”
Many patients involved in the study reported that their symptoms of alcohol dependence returned after they discontinued use of cannabis. A whopping 29 of the patients who participated in Mikuriya’s study formerly used alcohol for pain relief, but all had instead converted to using cannabis for this task.
A significant portion of the study participants, 44, reported that they had used alcohol to treat a mood disorder such as stress, anxiety, or depression. Some also reported using booze to squelch the pain of PTSD. All forty four reported that they had successfully substituted cannabis for alcohol for the relief of their psychological ailments. Mikuriya stressed that cannabis has fewer side effects than both alcohol and prescription drugs.
A study published in the Harm Reduction Journal in 2009 and conducted at the University of California at Berkeley concluded with the recommendation that cannabis be used as a substitute for alcohol in the treatment of alcohol abuse. The study polled 350 cannabis users, finding that 40 percent used the herb to control their alcohol cravings and that 66 percent leveraged it as a replacement for prescription drugs. Even 26 percent of those polled used cannabis as a substitute for more potent illegal drugs, like cocaine and heroin.
The study was conducted by Amanda Reiman at the UC-Berkeley Patient’s Group medical cannabis dispensary. Said Reinman:
“Substituting cannabis for alcohol has been described as a radical alcohol treatment protocol. This approach could be used to address heavy alcohol use in the British Isles — people might substitute cannabis, a potentially safer drug than alcohol with [fewer] negative side effects, if it were socially acceptable and available.”
The study reported that 65 percent of participants used cannabis as a substitute because it delivers fewer negative side effects than alcohol, prescription drugs, or harder illegal drugs. Of those polled, 34 percent said they used cannabis because it has no physical addiction and, thus, less withdrawal potential. Nearly 58 percent of participants said they used cannabis because it is more capable of dealing with their symptoms.
In states where cannabis remains prohibited, it’s understandable that citizens would opt for a legal, albeit dramatically more dangerous, drug that is vastly easier to obtain. In states like Colorado and Oregon, where recreational use for those 21 and older has been legalized, those suffering from alcohol dependence now have the option of legally and conveniently visiting a dispensary or retail shop to purchase an alternative to a 12-pack of Bud Light or too many whiskey sours.
According to Dr. B.G. Charlton in the United Kingdom:
“Since hundreds of thousands of people in the UK and Ireland regularly get drunk during their leisure hours, it is clear that a lifestyle drug that induces a state of euphoric release is needed, and alcohol is currently the only legal and available intoxicating agent. Marijuana is probably a safer and less antisocial alternative to high-dose alcohol.”
There will always be a sizeable portion of the population that refuses to engage in illegal activities or deal with the black market for uncertain product. For these people, alcohol and tobacco are among the only sanctioned, legal, and encouraged euphoric activities in the majority of the United States. As cannabis becomes legal in more areas of the nation, especially at a recreational level, more sufferers of alcoholism and opiate addiction will be given the option of “switching” to cannabis.
Photo credit: Drug Policy Alliance.
With nearly half of U.S. states having legalized some form of whole plant marijuana — recreational or medical — pot production is up. Way up. Despite the plant’s federal illegality, such dramatic changes in the production levels and trade dynamics of the United States are having a significant effect on the pot production and economics of trading partners like Mexico.
For decades, it has been understood that both Canada and Mexico imported literally hundreds of tons of cannabis into the U.S., primarily for the recreational black market. These imports, however, are down. Why?
American Pot Considered Best
Increased pot production in the U.S. is part of the equation; the superior quality of American herb is the other. To illustrate this shift, consider that well-heeled cannabis consumers in Mexico are beginning to request American strains from states like Colorado and California. Mexican cartels, acclimated to the flow of product from the south to the north, are actually beginning to import cannabis (and selling it for about four times the price of their regular stock).
It is estimated that, prior to the current wave of American legalization, only about 15-20 percent of the cannabis consumed in the U.S. was domestic. Today, according to the United Nations, the United States produces a third of the marijuana it consumes. In 2014, customs authorities in California seized 132,000 pounds of illegal cannabis entering the country. In 2009, only five years earlier, the amount seized was double. Cannabis from major production states like California and Colorado is displacing much of the pot that used to flow from Mexico.
To compensate for the lack of demand by American consumers for their product, Mexican cartels have increased production of heroin and methamphetamines. In fact, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, nearly half of the heroin consumed in the U.S. comes from Mexico, a number that was only 14 percent as recently as 2009.
Mexican Farmers Abandoning Cannabis
In Sinaloa, a center of Mexican pot production, farmers are ripping out cannabis and planting green beans and tomatoes. A government program that subsidizes such crops has seen participation increase by 30 percent since 2013.
“In our town, [cannabis production] dropped because it’s no longer a profitable business,”
said Mario Valenzuela, mayor of Badiraguato, Mexico.
If California approves fully legal, regulated recreational marijuana in November 2016, Mexico will face even larger volumes of domestic herb against which it must fight for customers. With such a large amount of high-grade cannabis being sold in legitimate dispensaries and retail shops — the safe, legal way Americans like to shop for things — will Mexican cartels give up on cannabis imports?
Cartels can obviously continue to focus on hard drugs like heroin and meth and other lines of business, such as human slavery and prostitution. A lack of profits from cannabis production and sales certainly won’t put Mexican cartels out of business. However, the billions of dollars put into the hands of violent organized crime is now shifting to legal entrepreneurs, cultivators, and shop owners in states like Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and California. Along with this shift, tens of millions of tax dollars are entering municipal, county, and state coffers instead of fueling drug war violence and terrorism south of the border.
California’s Influence on Mexico
Some in Mexico are predicting that the effect of full legalization in California would be so dramatic as to force Mexico to also legalize the herb.
“If California legalizes, you can’t politically sustain prohibition in Mexico,”
said Jorge Javier Romero, president of the CUPIHD drug policy group in Mexico City.
As more states legalize at least medical cannabis, demand for high-quality domestic product will continue to surge, further marginalizing profits on cheap Mexican herb. While states like Ohio are planning closed markets that would, by law, rely only on cannabis produced in-state, full legalization in open-market states like California, Oregon, and Colorado may cause a serious and permanent shift in the profit centers of Mexican organized crime.
With full legalization inevitable in states like California and possible even at the federal level within the decade, Mexico’s drug cartels will continue to focus on highly addictive drugs, like heroin, while leveraging their other lines of business, like prostitution. Regardless of the effect on Mexico and its many violent cartels, the American economy will enjoy a rare boost that actually helps the little guy, not Wall Street.
photo credit: thecommonsenseshow.com