The acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was put through the wringer by lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, pressed repeatedly to answer questions about the federal agency’s outdated marijuana policy.
Here’s a roundup of exchanges between DEA Acting Administrator Robert Patterson and members of the House Judiciary Committee during a hearing on the opioid epidemic.
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN)
“The DEA has always been in a position of great importance—and it’s important that the DEA administrator stay current with what the people have shown by their actions and their statements what they believe is the right priorities for the DEA,” Cohen started.
In short, the people don’t think marijuana should be a federal law enforcement priority, he said. He then asked Patterson why marijuana is classified in the same drug scheduling category as more harmful drugs such as heroin.
“The reason why it remains in Schedule I is the science,” Patterson said.
“The science?” Cohen responded. He later added, “I’m happy to hear that you believe in science, that’s refreshing.” But Cohen wanted to know what the DEA official’s personal views on marijuana scheduling were, and Patterson delivered: He said that he was worried the country was “going down a bad path with marijuana” and that all of the national conversations around reform mainly had to do with revenue.
Cohen pushed back, arguing that adults also care about racially disproportionate arrests for non-violent marijuana offenses, for instance. Patterson said he didn’t see a link between prohibitionist marijuana policies and mass incarceration, then went into a rant that concluded:
“At what point did we determine that revenue was more important than our kids?”
Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA)
Johnson began his questioning by asking Patterson how many Americans died from opioid-related overdoses among the 64,000 drug overdose deaths recorded in 2016.
Patterson knew that figure, responding that about 44,000 deaths were the result of opioid-related overdoses. But when asked a follow-up question about marijuana-related overdose deaths, the DEA official said that he didn’t believe there were any officially recorded in 2016, but that he was “aware of a few deaths from marijuana.”
(The DEA itself said there were no known deaths attributed to a marijuana overdose in a 2017 report on drug abuse.)
“You are aware of a few deaths from marijuana?” Johnson asked. At that point, Patterson said that he didn’t have materials in front of him to reference, but that he believed these deaths were caused by “adulterated” cannabis and said he ultimately understood the congressman’s point: that in terms of risk of overdose, marijuana and opioids are “not comparable.”
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA)
Swalwell used his time at the hearing to talk about the struggles of families he’s met whose children have either fatally overdosed on opioids or suffered from addiction. He asked Patterson what can be done to prevent and address youth substance abuse.
The DEA official discussed the importance of early education drug prevention programs—and then pivoted to marijuana.
“I hate to do this, but I’m going to do it to you—and this is what concerns me about marijuana because those same stories I hear all the time, I generally hear marijuana introduced,” Patterson said. But he then made a surprising admission, telling Swalwell that he’s “not going to compare” drugs like marijuana and opioids, and also that he wouldn’t “say [marijuana is] a gateway [drug].”
That caveat was significant, Don Murphy, director of conservative outreach at the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a statement to Marijuana Moment. “When the head of the DEA rejects the gateway theory, he’s a witness for an end to prohibition,” Murphy said.
Patterson did go on to say that “the problem is that these things all seem to dovetail together, and my concern is—and again, I’ll take my DEA hat off for a second is as a person in the United States—what message we send as we try to navigate this space in terms of that, and I think that’s problematic.”
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL)
Gaetz wanted to know whether it is “the position of the DEA that democratizing access to medical marijuana will add to the substance abuse problem in this country.” Patterson said he feels “it’s a conversation that we have to have.”
But that question appeared to set Gaetz up for an extensive back-and-forth during which the DEA head demonstrated a stunning lack of knowledge about the existing scientific literature concerning marijuana’s health benefits and its potential use as a substitute for dangerous pharmaceuticals, including opioid painkillers.
Was Patterson familiar with a 2017 report from the National Academies of Science that found “conclusive or substantial evidence” that cannabis and cannabinoids effectively treats chronic pain—a condition that is traditionally treated with opioid painkillers? No.
Was he familiar any of the numerous patient surveys from states where marijuana has been legalized, showing significant reductions in pharmaceutical use correlated with cannabis reform? No.
OK, was he aware of any studies that showed the opposite? That marijuana use was associated with increased use of dangerous illicit drugs? Again, no.
So then, going back to his first question, why is it that the DEA cannot speak to its official position as to whether marijuana legalization would add to the country’s substance abuse problem if its acting administrator can’t defend that argument based on any “evidentiary standpoint,” Gaetz asked. A flustered Patterson reaffirmed the agency’s support for research into medical marijuana and also pinned blame on the lack of DEA-approved research grants for medical marijuana research on international treaties that he claimed were being deliberated by the Justice Department.
Gaetz said he appreciated the agency’s support for research and asked whether the DEA would commit to partnering with lawmakers in their efforts to expand federal marijuana research.
“We’ve been consistent in that message,” Patterson said.
Photo courtesy of Ted Eytan.
Feds Award $3 Million In Grants To Study Marijuana Ingredients As Alternatives To Opioids
The federal government has awarded $3 million in grants for research into the therapeutic benefits of ingredients in marijuana other than THC, emphasizing their potential as alternatives to prescription opioids.
In a notice published on Thursday, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) explained why the studies were necessary and listed grant recipients and the subjects they will investigate. That includes research into the use of CBD for arthritis pain, which will be led by New York University School of Medicine.
“The treatment of chronic pain has relied heavily on opioids, despite their potential for addiction and overdose and the fact that they often don’t work well when used on a long-term basis,” Helene Langevin, director of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), said in a press release. “There’s an urgent need for more effective and safer options.”
A total of nine grants were issued, with NIH stating that the funds will help identify alternative treatment options for pain and provide information about the impact of consuming cannabis compounds such as CBD and other lesser-known cannabinoids as well as terpenes found in the plant.
“The cannabis plant contains more than 110 cannabinoids and 120 terpenes, but the only compound that’s been studied extensively is THC,” the press release said.
But while THC is known to treat certain forms of pain, NIH is concerned that its intoxicating effects limit its medical applicability.
“THC may help relieve pain, but its value as an analgesic is limited by its psychoactive effects and abuse potential,” David Shurtleff, deputy director of NCCIH, said. “These new projects will investigate substances from cannabis that don’t have THC’s disadvantages, looking at their basic biological activity and their potential mechanisms of action as pain relievers.”
Just released: Nine new research awards, funded by our Center, will investigate the potential pain-relieving properties and mechanisms of actions of the diverse phytochemicals in cannabis, including both minor cannabinoids and terpenes. https://t.co/03MxrycfFa
— NIH NCCIH (@NIH_NCCIH) September 19, 2019
NIH first announced that it would be issuing grants for studies into minor cannabinoids and terpenes last year.
Federal health agencies aren’t the only institutions interested in learning about marijuana compounds other than THC. On Wednesday, a Senate committee issued a spending report that called for research into CBD and CBG while also criticizing the federal drug scheduling system for inhibiting such research.
Read descriptions of the federal cannabinoid and terpene research grant awards below:
Mechanism and Optimization of CBD-Mediated Analgesic Effects; Boston Children’s Hospital, Boston,; Zhigang He, Ph.D., B.M., and Juan Hong Wang, Ph.D. This project will investigate how the pain-relieving effects of cannabidiol (CBD) and other minor cannabinoids may be modulated by the activity of potassium-chloride cotransporter 2 (KCC2), a chloride extruder expressed in most neurons. (Grant 1R01AT010779)
Neuroimmune Mechanisms of Minor Cannabinoids in Inflammatory and Neuropathic Pain; University of California, San Francisco; Judith Hellman, M.D., and Mark A. Schumacher, M.D., Ph.D. This project will explore the effects of minor cannabinoids on inflammatory and neuropathic pain in vitro and in vivo, focusing on the interactions of the cannabinoids with the peripheral receptor called TRPV1 and a cannabinoid receptor, CB1R. (Grant 1R01AT010757)
Minor Cannabinoids and Terpenes: Preclinical Evaluation as Analgesics; Research Triangle Institute, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina; Jenny L. Wiley, Ph.D. This project will evaluate purified biosynthesized minor cannabinoids and selected terpenes alone and in planned combinations to determine their potential efficacy as pain relievers against acute thermal, inflammatory, neuropathic, and visceral pain. (Grant 1R01AT010773)
Identifying the Mechanisms of Action for CBD on Chronic Arthritis Pain; New York University School of Medicine, New York City; Yu-Shin Ding, Ph.D. This project will use neuroimaging studies and behavioral assessments to investigate the mechanisms of action of CBD in the modulation of chronic pain associated with osteoarthritis in a mouse model. (Grant 1R21AT010771)
Synthetic Biology for the Chemogenetic Manipulation of Pain Pathways; University of Texas, Austin; Andrew Ellington, Ph.D. This project will use a novel method to evolve individual variants of cannabinoid receptor type 2 (CB2) that interact with high affinity with minor cannabinoids and evaluate the new variants in a mouse model of pain. (Grant 1R21AT010777)
Exploring the Mechanisms Underlying the Analgesic Effect of Cannabidiol Using Proton Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy; University of Utah, Salt Lake City; Deborah A. Yurgelun-Todd, Ph.D. This project will use proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy (1H-MRS) to evaluate changes in brain chemistry in critical pain-processing regions after short-term administration of a cannabis extract enriched in CBD. (Grant 1R21AT010736)
Mechanistic Studies of Analgesic Effects of Terpene Enriched Extracts from Hops; Emory University, Atlanta; Cassandra L. Quave, Ph.D. This project will take a multidisciplinary approach to investigate the analgesic effects of terpenes from Humulus lupulus (hops), a plant that is closely related to cannabis and has a very similar terpene profile. (Grant 1R21AT010774)
Systematic Investigation of Rare Cannabinoids With Pain Receptors; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; David Sarlah, Ph.D. This project involves synthesizing several classes of rare phytocannabinoids, systematically evaluating their anti-inflammatory potential, and examining the effects of the compounds with the strongest anti-inflammatory potential on the major receptors involved in pain sensation. (Grant 1R21AT010761)
Analgesic efficacy of single and combined minor cannabinoids and terpenes; Temple University, Philadelphia; Sara J. Ward, Ph.D. This project will use rodent models of pain to evaluate the effects of four biologically active components of cannabis that may act synergistically to protect against pain development and to assess the interactions of these four substances with morphine. (Grant 1R01AT010778)
Beto O’Rourke Proposes Drug War Reparations Funded By Marijuana Taxes
Marijuana would not only be legalized under a plan proposed on Thursday by Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, but cannabis tax revenue would be used to directly repay formerly incarcerated people through a new “Drug War Justice Grant” program.
Unlike other contenders who have come around to supporting marijuana legalization in just the past couple of years, the former Texas congressman has long called for ending prohibition—and his new plan in many respects goes further than those rolled out by other campaigns.
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Support Grows For Marijuana Legalization Bill In Colombia
Colombia’s legislature will soon take up a bill to legalize and regulate the production and consumption of marijuana for adults.
The legislation, which is being filed by Sen. Gustavo Bolivar of the opposition Colombia Humana party, seeks to end prohibition as a means of curtailing crime and supporting a public health-focused approach to drug policy.
Bolivar, an author who has written several books centered on drug trafficking, has characterized the bill as being about “regularization, not legalization,” but it would provide for legal sales to adults with restrictions similar to those imposed for tobacco and alcohol. There would be penalties for selling to underage individuals and smoking wouldn’t be permitted in public spaces.
The senator pointed to Uruguay, Canada and states in the U.S. as regulatory models for legalization.
“It has been proven that crime levels are lowered and public health is improved,” he said, according to Colombia Reports.
Sen. Alberto Castilla Salazar of the leftist Polo Democrático party said that his coalition supports the reform measure.
Colombia debe superar el prohibicionismo y romper los vínculos de los grupos ilegales con el control del Cannabis, para que sea el Estado quien regule, defina las formas y entienda el consumo como problema de salud pública. Como @PoloDemocratico respaldamos está iniciativa. pic.twitter.com/YBDHqojENJ
— Alberto Castilla Salazar (@CastillaSenador) September 17, 2019
“Colombia must overcome prohibitionism and break the ties of illegal groups with the control of cannabis, so that it is the State that regulates, defines the forms and understands consumption as a public health problem,” he said on Tuesday.
Sen. Julián Gallo Cubillos of the FARC party said his coalition supports the legislation and that it represents “a new way to fight the scourge of drug trafficking.”
— Senado Colombia (@SenadoGovCo) September 18, 2019
The proposal has also garnered the support of former President Juan Manuel Santos, who has been an outspoken advocate for ending the war on drugs. His Liberal party could make or break the legislation depending on where members fall.
While left and center-left lawmakers seem largely united around legalizing marijuana, the issue will likely face resistance from President Ivan Duque, who last year signed a decree banning low-level possession of cannabis and cocaine despite court rulings that such activity is permissible.
As Colombia Reports noted, however, Duque’s far-right Democratic Center party is in the minority.
“We’ll have to see how many senators are left to former president Juan Manuel Santos and see how public opinion receives the idea that marijuana can be consumed in public spaces,” Sen. Paloma Valencia, a member of the president’s party, said.
If the country does opt to pursue a regulated cannabis program, it will join Mexico, where lawmakers are readying legislation to legalize marijuana for adult use following a Supreme Court ruling establishing that a ban on possession and cultivation for personal use is unconstitutional.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.