Will New DEA Chief Signal Federal Medical Marijuana?

By Gooey Rabinski | April 22, 2015

While an increasing number of states consider the legalization of medical and recreational marijuana, federal authorities have continued to enforce strict Congressional laws that, technically speaking, outlaw the cultivation, possession, and use of cannabis in any form and for any reason — anywhere in the United States.

Pot-Positive POTUS?

It’s possibly not overly coincidental that Barack Obama recently spoke out in support of medical cannabis when being interviewed by Dr. Sanjay Gupta on CNN. On April 21, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that Michele Leonhart will be “retiring” her role as chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in May. Leonhart, depicted by even mainstream media as a Luddite who played it by the book, refused to ever admit that cannabis might offer medicinal value. Under testimony before Congress, she even refused to recognize that cannabis might be safer than hard drugs like heroin and methamphetamines.

Leonhart’s behavior has been lockstep with marijuana’s categorization under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. Spanning back to the Nixon administration in 1970, this classification has prohibited the research necessary to prove the medical efficacy of cannabis for a wide range of diseases and ailments.

Recently, 20 lawmakers on the House Oversight committee logged a vote of “no confidence” for Ms. Leonhart’s leadership of the DEA. This was in response to the latest scandal involving drug cartel-funded prostitution parties in Columbia in which DEA agents participated. This inevitably led to AG Holder’s announcement.

Medical Research Needed

With no hard medical evidence, agencies like the DEA and the Department of Justice have been able to say “There’s no medical value, Schedule I makes sense.” But, in a nasty Catch 22, maintaining cannabis as a Schedule I drug has prevented the medical research necessary to prove to the government — and voters in both parties — that cannabis offers solid and significant medical benefits.

With Leonhart no longer warming the DEA chief’s seat in a few short weeks, Obama has the opportunity to prove the sincerity of his recent support for “science-based” medical cannabis — and correct his mistake of appointing Leonhart in the first place.

He can appoint a scientist or senior medical researcher, signaling the administration’s approach to all drugs to be one of health policy, not criminal enforcement. If the new chief recognized the need to reclassify cannabis as Schedule II, it would spur countless research studies and expand entrepreneurial efforts in legal states like Colorado, Washington, and Alaska.

Obama told Gupta during his interview with CNN:

“…not only do I think carefully prescribed medical use of marijuana may in fact be appropriate and we should follow the science as opposed to ideology on this issue, but I’m also on record as saying that the more we treat some of these issues related to drug abuse from a public health model and not just from an incarceration model, the better off we’re going to be.”

There is already an effort in Congress to reclassify cannabis to Schedule II that’s being spearheaded by Senators Cory Booker, Rand Paul, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Dean Heller called the CARERS (Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States) Act.

CARERS is a bipartisan bill that, if it became law, would allow states to legalize medical marijuana without federal interference. It would also allow Veterans Affairs doctors to recommend cannabis to veterans suffering from brain injury, neurological disorders, and PTSD. In addition, the bill would legalize high CBD strains of marijuana, making them viable medical treatments on a national level (especially for treatment-resistant epilepsy in both children and adults).

Is Obama Sincere?

If Obama wants to validate his own words in support of medical marijuana, he will appoint a new DEA chief that supports rescheduling and, by extension, robust research into the medical efficacy of cannabis. In addition, he should openly support the CARERS Act, possibly giving the bill the momentum it needs to become law and begin the inevitable recognition, legalization, and regulation of medical marijuana on the part of the federal government.

For a late second term president who might be looking for a positive legacy — one that doesn’t involve terrorism, war, corporate bailouts, and a lagging economy — pushing forth the first federal-level medical marijuana legislation could go a long way in terms of public opinion (all of which indicates that the majority of citizens support medical cannabis).

Gooey Rabinski

Gooey Rabinski is the author of Understanding Medical Marijuana.

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