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DEA Appears To Question Marijuana’s Medical Value Despite Rescheduling Recommendation



In the wake of the federal government’s marijuana rescheduling announcement last week that acknowledged the medical benefits of cannabis, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) on Thursday released a report that appears to question the legitimacy of state medical programs.

“Marijuana remains illegal at the federal level; it has been ‘legalized’ or ‘decriminalized’ at the state level for recreational use in 24 states and the District of Columbia, and for ‘medical’ use in 38 states and the District of Columbia,” the annual National Drug Threat Assessment says, appearing to call those state-level changes and the medical value of cannabis into question by putting scare quotes around key words.

That’s despite the fact that DEA recently agreed to a Department of Health and Human Services recommendation to move cannabis to Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act, acknowledging for the first time that cannabis has an accepted medical use in the U.S.

The comments make up only a small part of the 57-page annual report, which the agency said analyzes “illicit drug threats and trafficking trends endangering the United States.”

The top-level findings, according to a statement from DEA Administrator Anne Milgram, are that the country’s shift toward synthetic substances such as fentanyl and methamphetamine—which she blamed largely on international cartels—has caused unprecedented harm.

“The shift from plant-based drugs, like heroin and cocaine, to synthetic, chemical-based drugs, like fentanyl and methamphetamine, has resulted in the most dangerous and deadly drug crisis the United States has ever faced,” Milgram said. “At the heart of the synthetic drug crisis are the Sinaloa and Jalisco cartels and their associates, who DEA is tracking world-wide.”

“The suppliers, manufacturers, distributors, and money-launderers all play a role in the web of deliberate and calculated treachery orchestrated by these cartels,” her statement continued. “DEA will continue to use all available resources to target these networks and save American lives.”

In 2022, drug-related deaths killed 107,941 people in the United States, DEA said in its press release about the new assessment. “Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids are responsible for approximately 70% of lives lost,” it says, “while methamphetamine and other synthetic stimulants are responsible for approximately 30% of deaths.”

The agency press release doesn’t mention marijuana, though this year’s National Drug Threat Assessment itself does include some cannabis-related details.

Unlike unregulated markets for synthetic drugs, for example, the DEA report says that the main suppliers of illicit marijuana “are cannabis growers and processors operating inside the United States.”

Despite state-level regulation in many states, it continues, “the black market for marijuana continues, with substantial trafficking by Mexican cartels, and Chinese and other Asian organized crime groups profiting from illegal cultivation and sales, as well as exploitation of the ‘legal’ market.”

Recently released federal data from 2023, however, show that marijuana seizures at the U.S.–Mexico border have in fact fallen to their lowest level in recent history, dropping 29 percent from 2022. The 2023 figures mark a 98 percent decline in cannabis intercepted at the southern border since 2013.

DEA’s report says that while the Sinaloa cartel does collect “billions of dollars in the illicit synthetic trade,” it also “has never stopped trafficking cocaine, heroin, and marijuana.” The Jalisco cartel, meanwhile, which DEA credits as “the main supplier of cocaine to U.S. markets,” also “traffic ton quantities of heroin and marijuana into the United States.”

A separate recent budget submission from DEA to congressional lawmakers reflected the agency’s focus on synthetic substances, primarily fentanyl, noting that the ongoing drug overdose epidemic—which includes deaths from substances many users didn’t realize they were taking—claims lives at a rate of one every five minutes. Marijuana and psilocybin are mentioned only briefly, as subjects of further federally approved research.

DEA’s National Drug Threat Assessment also points to evidence from the University of Mississippi’s Marijuana Potency Monitoring Program indicating that the average delta-9 THC levels “in leafy marijuana is at an all-time high, increasing the potential risk of negative effects on users of any form of the drug, and on children who may consume edibles made with these substances.”

An included graph citing the University of Mississippi program shows average THC rising from around 1 percent in 1977 to roughly 16 percent in 2022.

THC edibles, meanwhile, “are leading to an increase in child and adolescent admissions to Emergency Rooms,” the DEA report says. Despite warning letters issued for products containing federally unregulated delta-8 THC, which is typically derived from hemp crops authorized under the 2018 Farm Bill, the agency said “the concern remains that children will unknowingly eat THC-infused products, regardless of warning labels, because the products mimic the appearance of the actual product, and the packages look nearly identical to the legitimate product’s packaging.”

An included photo from the Lancaster County Drug Task Force in Pennsylvania shows a variety of delta-8 THC products labeled with product names such as Ruffles, Cookie Crisp, Nerds and Frosted Flakes.

The DEA report does not clarify that products on state-regulated marijuana markets are almost universally prohibited from mimicking mainstream food products, including depictions of cartoon animals or otherwise appealing to children.

Additionally, DEA says in its threat assessment that illegal cannabis grows can wreak havoc on the environment.

“Illegal outdoor marijuana grows, usually found on public lands, use toxic fertilizers and pest repellants that endanger non-pest wildlife, damage surrounding plants, and seep into water supplies,” the report says. “These sites are mainly located in remote, difficult-to-access areas and can be expensive for cultivators to maintain but are also challenging for law enforcement to detect and eradicate.”

“Indoor cultivation,” it continues, “can operate year-round and offer the drug traffickers a continuous profit stream but can severely damage the homes where the grows are established, creating health and safety hazards to first responders.”

The document is largely silent on psychedelics, which have also become the subject of reform discussions at the state and federal levels. It acknowledges the substances in a section on “new psychoactive substances.”

“Several of these ‘novel’ drugs have actually been around for decades but experience periodic surges in popularity or return to the illegal drug market with tweaks after the original substance was banned or controlled,” it says. Among others, such as MDMA, “Various plant-based substances also fall into this category, such as psilocybin (mushrooms); ayahuasca; salvia divinorum (Magic Mint, Sally D) and khat.”

Far from being a “new” substance, however, human use of psilocybin is believed to go back thousands of years. The existence of psilocybin mushrooms, meanwhile, may stretch back to the time of the dinosaurs’ demise, according to research released earlier this year.

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Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.

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Ben Adlin, a senior editor at Marijuana Moment, has been covering cannabis and other drug policy issues professionally since 2011. He was previously a senior news editor at Leafly, an associate editor at the Los Angeles Daily Journal and a Coro Fellow in Public Affairs. He lives in Washington State.


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