|Washington Governor Christine Gregoire: "Has anybody died from marijuana?"|
The move by the governors gives new political muscle to the debate on the legal and medicinal status of marijuana, which has been raging across an American cultural divide for decades, reports Michael Cooper at The New York Times.
"The divergence in state and federal law creates a situation where there is no regulated and safe system to supply legitimate patients who may need medical cannabis," the governors wrote on Wednesay to Michele M. Leonhart, administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
"In the year 2011, why can't medical cannabis be prescribed by a physician and filled at the drug store just like any other medication?" Gregoire said on Wednesday, reports Vanessa Ho at SeattlePI.com.
"The answer is surprisingly simple," Gregoire said. "It can. But only if the federal government stops classifying marijuana as unsuitable for medical treatment."
"People die from overdoses of opiates," Gregoire said, noting that many doctors believe it makes no sense to place cannabis in a more restrictive category than opium, morphine, or oxycodone. "Has anybody died from marijuana?"
|The Raw Story|
|Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee: "Patients across Rhode Island and across the United States, many of whom are in tremendous pain, stand to experience some relief"|
Gov. Chafee said on Wednesday that reclassifying cannabis could help many people.
"Patients across Rhode Island and across the United States, many of whom are in tremendous pain, stand to experience some relief," he said.
Rhode Island passed a law mandating the creation of three compassion centers throughout the state prior to Gov. Chafee's term, but Chafee failed to implement the law, citing fears of federal enforcement against compassion center operators.
Similar legislation was passed in Washington state earlier this year, but most of the bill was vetoed by Gov. Gregoire, including a plan to legally establish medical marijuana distribution centers.
Both governors pointed to a series of threatening letters sent by U.S. Attorneys suggesting that medical marijuana dispensaries and their employees -- and even state employees in charge of regulating them -- could be the targets of federal prosecution.
Of course, Gregoire and Chafee's petition to the DEA may be roundly ignored or summarily dismissed. The DEA, when it comes to the medical value of cannabis, has for years ignored the rulings and advice not only of numerous scientific experts but also of its own administrative law judge.
The federal government considers marijuana a Schedule I drug under the Uniform Controlled Substances Act, in a category that also includes heroin, LSD and other drugs seen as having a "high potential for abuse" and "no accepted medical value."
The governors want cannabis reclassified as a Schedule II controlled substance (like cocaine or amphetamines), which would mean it still has potential for addiction and abuse, but has some accepted medical uses.
They claim the move will remove the conflict between federal drug laws and state laws that allow the establishment of medical marijuana dispensaries or compassion centers.
The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) had a mixed reaction to the news.
|Marijuana Policy Project|
|Rob Kampia, MPP: "Rescheduling marijuana ... will not change the federal penalties for possessing, cultivating, or distributing medical marijuana. That is the change we really need."|
"This is a good first step, in that it shows that politicians are catching up with the scientific consensus, which is that marijuana has medical value," said Rob Kampia, executive director of MPP. "If it succeeds, federal law will finally acknowledge that fact.
"Rescheduling marijuana, however, will not change the federal penalties for possessing, cultivating, or distributing medical marijuana," Kampia pointed out. "That is the change we really need.
"These governors should be insisting that the federal government allow them to run their medical marijuana operations the ways they see fit, which in these cases includes allowing regulated distribution centers to provide patients with safe access to their medicine and not force them to turn to illicit dealers," Kampia said.
Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), said the governors' request for rescheduling doesn't absolve them from responsibility for administering and facilitating their own states' medical marijuana programs.
"The governor's call for rescheduling marijuana so that it can be prescribed for medical purposes is an important step forward in challenging the federal government's intransigence in this area," Nadelmann said. "But their call should not serve as an excuse for these two governors to fail to move forward on responsible regulation of medical marijuana in their own states.
|Drug Policy Alliance|
|Ethan Nadelmann, DPA: "[T]heir call should not serve as an excuse for these two governors to fail to move forward on responsible regulation of medical marijuana in their own states"|
"Governors in states ranging from New Jersey and Vermont to Colorado and New Mexico have not allowed the federal government's ban on medical marijuana to prevent them from approving and implementing statewide regulation of medical marijuana," Nadelmann said. "Governors Gregoire and Chafee should do likewise."
Washington voters legalized medical marijuana 13 years ago, in 1998, but their law -- like medical marijuana laws now in effect in 16 other states -- created legal gray areas that conflict with federal law.
"We strongly applaud the leadership of Governors Gregoire and Chafee in urging the Obama Administration to reclassify medical marijuana," said Steph Sherer, executive director of patient advocacy organization Americans for Safe Access (ASA). "With the help of these governors, and likely others, it is only a matter of time before marijuana is rescheduled for medical use.
"We look forward to a time when patients do not have to live in fear," Sherer said.
|Americans for Safe Access|
|Steph Sherer, ASA: "We look forward to a time when patients to not have to live in fear"|
The Gregoire/Chafee petition follows a similar petition that was denied by the DEA in July. ASA, collaborating with the Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis (CRC), has appealed the federal government's denial in the case, and it is currently pending in the D.C. Circuit.
The CRC filed its petition in 2002 and had not received any response until ASA sued the Obama Administration for unreasonable delay. Less than two months later, the DEA denied the petition.
In 2009, the American Medical Association reversed its position and called for reviewing the classification of marijuana, saying that its current Schedule I standing was limiting clinical research.
Gregoire earlier this year vetoed most of a law that would have licensed medical marijuana dispensaries and created a registry of patients, claiming she was concerned about federal prosecution of state employees involved in the medicinal cannabis program. Such federal arrests of state marijuana workers have never happened in the 15 years since California became the first state to legalize medicinal cannabis.
Since Gregoire's veto, the Seattle City Council enacted a law that requires medical marijuana dispensaries to obtain business licenses and follow public-health regulations to protect patients' safe access to the herb.
Earlier this month, the DEA conducted its largest-ever raids on Seattle-area dispensaries. The strong-arm move upset many patients and advocates.
"What we have out here on the ground is chaos," Gregoire said, according to The New York Times. "And in the midst of all the chaos we have patients who really either feel like they're criminals or may be engaged in some criminal activity, and really are legitimate patients who want medicinal marijuana."
An additional concern for many patients is the possible interruption of safe access to the strains that help them the most with specific medical conditions, should marijuana be classified a Schedule II drug and switched to pharmacies rather than dispensaries in medical marijuana states.
Under such a scenario, much of the genetic richness of the cannabis plant -- and the many medical applications of specific strains of indica, sativa and hybrids thereof -- could be lost to the powerful, monied interests of Big Pharma companies like GW Pharmaceutical. GW is already marketing Sativex, an oral spray made up of concentrated THC and CDB -- two major medicinal components -- in a 50/50 ratio.
Patients worry that in a Schedule II scenario -- much as has happened with Health Canada's government pot north of the border -- that federal marijuana would be one, undifferentiated strain (and in Canada's case, widely seen as an inferior strain), with the wrong cannabinoid ratio for many patients, and thus might prove useless to them medicinally.
So, is the rescheduling call from Gregoire and Chafee -- both of whom lacked the political will to institute medical marijuana dispensary licensing in their own states -- just a cover for political skittishness? Is it a Trojan Horse through which Big Pharma hopes to take over the medicinal cannabis industry? Or is it a genuine call for reform? Stay tuned.