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Georgia Pharmacist ‘Very Disappointed’ With DEA Warning Letter On Dispensing Medical Marijuana, Saying It’s An Opioid Alternative



Little Five Points Pharmacy, in Atlanta, is one of nearly 120 independent pharmacies in Georgia that recently applied to dispense medical marijuana under a new state program. Then last week, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) sent Little Five Points and other pharmacies across the state a warning that the activity is unlawful because THC remains a Schedule I controlled substance.

“I’m very, very, very disappointed with it,” pharmacist Ira Katz, at Little Five Points Pharmacy, told Atlanta First News. “We always felt, as pharmacists, that this is a drug and it should be kept in pharmacy. It should be regulated by pharmacy. So we are very disappointed that the DEA is choosing to keep it out of pharmacy, where it belongs.”

Katz, in further comments to 11 Alive, said the issue is important “because who better than your independent pharmacy, who knows your history and knows your medical history, is able to best dispense medical marijuana?”

“For chronic pain, we believe that if we can get patients off these high doses of opioids, the hydrocodone, the oxycodone, the combinations of these things, then through the use of medical cannabis, we believe we can help contribute to slowing down this opiate crisis,” the pharmacist said.

Todd Heydel, of Peachtree NORML, called DEA’s letters “ridiculous” and “extremely frustrating in comments to Atlanta First.

“We have children that are sick, that need medicine and need safe, legal access,” Heydel said. “And in Georgia, it seems like every time we try to take a step forward, there’s pushback.”

Opponents of the state’s medical marijuana system, such as Michael Mumpter, of Georgians for Responsible Marijuana Policy, have welcomed the federal warning letter.

“I imagine, in the short term, the pharmacies who started dispensing medical marijuana would have to stop or risk confrontation with the DEA,” he told 11 Alive.

So far, Georgia politicians and regulators have stayed quiet on the DEA warning.

Multiple members of Georgia’s U.S. House delegation did not respond to Marijuana Moment’s requests for comment this week. On the Senate side, staff for Sen. Raphael Warnock (D), who recently confronted bankers in a committee hearing about the need for social equity in marijuana reform, did not respond to emails. Sen. Jon Ossoff’s (D) office declined to comment.

Georgia’s Board of Pharmacy and Department of Public Health also did not respond to requests for comment.

One potential complicating factor around DEA’s advisory is a congressional budget rider that prevents the the Department of Justice from spending resources to interfere with the implementation of state medical marijuana laws. The provision was first enacted into law in 2014 and was extended last month to at least February 2024.

It’s not clear whether DEA’s warning or potential enforcement action would violate that provision, though some advocates have suggested that simply spending on postage for the letters could arguably count as expending resources to interfere with Georgia’s state-legal medical marijuana system.

Georgia’s Board of Pharmacy began accepting applications from independent pharmacies to dispense low-THC cannabis oil, which under state law can contain no more than 5 percent THC, in October. The goal was to improve access to medical marijuana among patients, who are otherwise restricted to just seven dispensaries that have opened in the state since April.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported early that month that nearly 120 pharmacies had applied to the Board of Pharmacy to dispense marijuana products made by Botanical Sciences, one of the state’s two licensed producers. Pharmacies could also distribute medical cannabis from Trulieve, the state’s other licensed producer.

As of late October, at least three pharmacies had begun dispensing Botanical Sciences products, the company said in a press release. According to a map on the company’s website, more than 100 more are slated to open soon.

If sales of medical cannabis products went online in all locations, about 90 percent of Georgians would be within a 30-minute drive of a pharmacy selling marijuana, according to an Associated Press report. The state allowance applies only to independent pharmacies, not larger chains such as CVS and others.

DEA sent the warning letters to Georgia pharmacies amid the federal agency’s ongoing review of a recommendation by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that marijuana be rescheduled under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), reportedly to Schedule III. The recommendation was leaked in late August, and DEA has yet to publicly act on it.

While the Congressional Research Service (CRS) recently concluded that it was “likely” that DEA would follow the HHS recommendation based on past precedent, DEA reserves the right to disregard the health agency’s advice because it has final jurisdiction over the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).

In October, HHS first publicly revealed a one-page version of the rescheduling memo, though it was heavily redacted to remove key information. This past week, the government handed over another 252-page tranche of documents related to the review, again with the majority of information blocked out.

Broadly, the new documents outline new scientific information that’s come to light in recent years subsequent to an earlier denial of a rescheduling petition, which HHS suggests might now necessitate rescheduling marijuana.

“The current review is largely focused on modern scientific considerations on whether marijuana has a CAMU [currently accepted medical use] and on new epidemiological data related to the abuse of marijuana in the years since the 2015 HHS” evaluation of marijuana under the CSA’s eight-factor analysis.

HHS also notes that it “analyzed considerable data related to the abuse potential of marijuana,” but added that it’s a complicated consideration, “and no single test or assessment provides a complete characterization.”

Earlier this month, six Democratic governors wrote a letter to the Biden administration urging that rescheduling be completed by the end of the year. As DEA implied in its letter to the Georgia pharmacy, pharmacies would be permitted to dispense marijuana if it’s moved to Schedule III, although pharmaceutical products would first need to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

“Rescheduling cannabis aligns with a safe, regulated product that Americans can trust,” says the governors’ letter, which points to a poll that found 88 percent of Americans support legalization for medical or recreational use. “As governors, we might disagree about whether recreational cannabis legalization or even cannabis use is a net positive, but we agree that the cannabis industry is here to stay, the states have created strong regulations, and supporting the state-regulated marketplace is essential for the safety of the American people.”

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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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