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Trump Administration Seeks Public Comments On Marijuana Reclassification

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The federal government wants your input on whether marijuana should be reclassified under global drug treaties to which the U.S. is a party.

Specifically, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is asking for public comments about the “abuse potential, actual abuse, medical usefulness, trafficking, and impact of scheduling changes on availability for medical use” of cannabis and several other substances now under international review.

Under current U.S. federal law as well as global drug policy agreements, marijuana is classified in the most restrictive category of Schedule I. At home, that means it is considered illegal and not available for prescription, while research on its potential benefits is heavily restricted. Cannabis’s international status means that nations who are signatories of drug control treaties are not supposed to legalize it, though that hasn’t stopped Canada and Uruguay from doing so.

Public comments on marijuana’s effects and legal status “will be considered in preparing a response from the United States to the World Health Organization (WHO) regarding the abuse liability and diversion of these drugs,” Leslie Kux, FDA’s associate commissioner for policy, wrote in a Federal Register filing published on Wednesday. “WHO will use this information to consider whether to recommend that certain international restrictions be placed on these drugs.”

WHO’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) is meeting in Geneva next month to consider the classification of marijuana and other substances, and is now seeking to “gather information on the legitimate use, harmful use, status of national control and potential impact of international control,” the United Nations body said in a notice excerpted in the FDA filing.

Earlier this year, ECDD determined that cannabidiol (CBD), a component of marijuana shown to have medical benefits without intoxicating properties like other cannabinoids such as THC, should not be scheduled under international drug control conventions.

“CBD has been found to be generally well tolerated with a good safety profile,” the UN body found in its critical review. “There is no evidence that CBD as a substance is liable to similar abuse and similar ill-effects as substances…such as cannabis or THC, respectively. The Committee recommended that preparations considered to be pure CBD should not be scheduled.”

The body also agreed to undergo an in-depth critical review of the marijuana plant and its resins and extracts, as well as THC itself. That new review is what triggered the FDA’s request for public comment on Wednesday.

The Trump administration sought public comments from interested parties in advance of an earlier UN pre-review on marijuana as well.

“Any comments received will be considered by [the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services] when it prepares a scientific and medical evaluation for drug substances that is responsive to the WHO Questionnaire for these drug substances,” the new FDA notice says. “HHS will forward such evaluation of these drug substances to WHO, for WHO’s consideration in deciding whether to recommend international control/decontrol of any of these drug substances.”

Legalization advocates are hopeful that a hard look at the data on marijuana’s effects will inevitably lead to a pro-reform conclusion.

“A careful review of the relevant science does not now, nor has it ever, supported a hard-line approach to cannabis scheduling. Cannabis’s abuse potential relative to other substances, including legal substances like alcohol, tobacco and prescription medications, does not warrant its continued criminalization under either U.S. or international law,” Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, said in an email. “By any rational assessment, cannabis prohibition is a disproportionate public policy response to behavior that is, at worst, a public health concern. But it should not be a criminal justice matter and international laws should no longer classify it as such.”

Mason Tvert, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, agreed.

“The time has come for marijuana to be removed from the federal drug schedules. There is no longer any doubt that it has significant medical value, and the science is clear that it is less harmful than many legal medical products,” he said. “While marijuana is not harmless — few, if any, products are — it poses less harm than alcohol to consumers and to society. The U.S. led the world into the quagmire of cannabis prohibition, so it should lead the world out of it by descheduling cannabis and implementing a more evidence-based policy.”

That said, the feds aren’t planning to make any cannabis recommendations to the UN panel ahead of its review meetings next month.

“Instead, HHS will defer such consideration until WHO has made official recommendations to the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, which are expected to be made in mid-2018,” the Federal Register notice says. “Any HHS position regarding international control of these drug substances will be preceded by another Federal Register notice soliciting public comments.”

In addition to marijuana and its components, the WHO committee is also reviewing several synthetic cannabinoids, fentanyls and other substances.

FDA has hinted that international rescheduling of marijuana and its components could influence changes to its legal status here at home.

This month, FDA publicly released a letter it sent to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) earlier this year suggesting that CBD should be completely removed from federal control.

Cannabidiol has a “negligible potential for abuse” and has a “currently accepted medical use in treatment,” the agency found.

But, because of international drug treaty obligations, FDA conceded that the substance needs to be scheduled, concluding that it should be placed under the least-restrictive category of Schedule V.

“If treaty obligations do not require control of CBD, or if the international controls on CBD change in the future, this recommendation will need to be promptly revisited,” FDA wrote in its analysis to DEA.

That document, dated in May, preceded the WHO’s determination that CBD should not be globally scheduled, and was part of the federal government’s approval and rescheduling last month of CBD-based drug Epidiolex, which is used for severe epilepsy disorders. It is not clear why the U.S. government subsequently decided to place FDA-approved CBD medications in the federal Schedule V, with an appeal to global treaties that the UN now says shouldn’t schedule the substance.

For now, FDA is accepting public comments on marijuana and the other substances currently under UN review via the web until October 31. Interested parties can also submit written comments via mail.

Ultimately, WHO will make a scheduling recommendation for marijuana to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who oversaw the enactment of drug decriminalization as Portugal’s prime minister, a policy he has touted in his current capacity.

This piece was first published by Forbes.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Tom Angell is the editor of Marijuana Moment. A 15-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he founded the nonprofit Marijuana Majority. Previously he reported for Marijuana.com and MassRoots, and handled media relations and campaigns for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. (Organization citations are for identification only and do not constitute an endorsement or partnership.)

Politics

Bipartisan Lawmakers Tell DEA To Let Researchers Study Marijuana From Dispensaries

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A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers from the House and Senate sent a letter to the Justice Department on Friday, requesting a policy change allowing researchers to access marijuana from state-legal dispensaries to improve studies on the plant’s benefits and risks.

The letter, led by Rep. Harley Rouda (D-CA) and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), cites feedback from federal health agencies, which have said that existing restrictions on cannabis have inhibited research. One problem in particular is that there’s only one federally authorized manufacturer of research-grade marijuana.

While the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) said that it is in the process of approving additional manufacturers, it’s been more than three years since they first announced that applications for more growers would be accepted and, more recently, the agency said it would have to develop alternative rules to approve proposals that have been submitted.

“At the same time, the status quo does not address a barrier to research raised by both [the National Institutes of Health] and [the Food and Drug Administration],” the lawmakers wrote in the new letter. That barrier is a ban on researchers being able to obtain marijuana from dispensaries.

“Both agencies recommended that researchers should be able to obtain cannabis from state-legal sources,” the letter states.

Further, the lawmakers said that there are “problems in industry development of licensed drugs with data from products obtained from third-parties, such as the University of Mississippi.”

“In many states, cannabis law and regulations already provide for licensing of industrial manufacturing activities, and products are available for medical use in those states, but not for research leading to FDA licensure,” they wrote.

“There is a need for a greater diversity of cannabis products so that research on benefits and risks reflects the realities of what consumers and patients are using. NIH and FDA have strongly recommended streamlining the process for conducting research and product development activities with cannabis and other Schedule I substances, and that the DEA take action to assure that interpretations of processes and policies are universally applied in local DEA jurisdictions.”

The lack of chemical diversity in the federal government’s cannabis supply has been repeatedly pointed out. One study found that the research-grade cannabis is more similar to hemp than marijuana in commercial markets.

To resolve the research issues, the coalition made two recommendations: 1) to amend internal policy “so as to allow researchers with Schedule I licenses to obtain cannabis-derived products from state authorized dispensaries for research purposes” and 2) issue guidance clarifying that hemp researchers do not need a DEA license to obtain and study hemp because it was federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill.

The letter requests a response from DEA by December 20.

A total of 21 members of Congress signed the letter, including Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Cory Gardner (R-CO), along with Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Barbara Lee (D-CA) Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Joe Kennedy (D-MA).

“Our nation’s cannabis research laws are archaic,” Rouda said in a press release. “Forty-seven states have legalized some form of cannabis consumption—we must ensure our federal agencies and other licensed institutions can comprehensively study the benefits and risks of cannabis products.”

“I thank Senator Schatz, and my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, for joining me to make this common-sense request,” he said. “It’s time to bring our drug research policies into the 21st century.”

Attorney General William Barr received a similar letter from lawmakers about the need to expand the number of federally authorized marijuana cultivators in April.

Read the lawmakers’ full letter on expanding marijuana research below:

FINAL Letter to DOJ Re. Can… by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

People Are Skipping Sleep Aids In Favor of Marijuana, Study Reports

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Oregon Activists Begin Signature Gathering For 2020 Drug Decriminalization Initiative

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Oregon activists have begun collecting signatures for a statewide initiative to decriminalize possession of all drugs.

Three months after petitioners quietly submitted the proposed ballot measure—titled the “Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act” (DATRA)—the signature gathering process has started, with organizers deployed to Portland to raise support.

A long road lies before the activists, who need to collect 112,020 valid signatures from voters in order to qualify for the 2020 ballot. Funding and polling will decide whether they mount a full push for the decriminalization measure in the months to come.

To that end, their efforts are being helped by David Bronner, CEO of the soap company Dr. Bronner’s, who told Marijuana Moment on Thursday that he will be investing $250,000 in the decriminalization campaign. An additional $500,000 will go to a separate Oregon initiative to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic purposes.

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), which backed Oregon’s successful marijuana legalization initiative in 2014, is also supporting this new effort to make low-level drug possession an infraction punishable by a $100 fine with no jail time, rather than a misdemeanor. It remains to be seen how involved in the campaign DPA will be, however.

Peter Zuckerman, a chief petitioner for the decriminalization initiative, told OregonLive on Thursday that it’s not guaranteed that the campaign will proceed and that much rides on how much money the group can raise, whether there’s public support for the reform move and how staff recruitment comes together.

He said the main thrust of the measure is to take a “health-based approach to drug addiction rather than a criminal justice-based approach.”

The proposal caught the attention of Oregon’s teachers’ union, which said that it supports decriminalizing drug possession but wrote in a comment submitted to the secretary of state in October that it was not taking an official position because it’s concerned about another provision that would shift cannabis tax revenue away from schools.

DATRA would make it so most of that revenue would be used to fund addiction treatment programs.

At the same time that activists are collecting signatures and weighing whether to move ahead with the broad decriminalization initiative, another advocacy group is pushing for a measure to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic use, allowing individuals to receive treatment with the psychedelic fungus at licensed health facilities. The group launched its signature drive in September.

Advocates in Portland are also hoping to advance a local measure to decriminalize psilocybin and other psychedelics such as ayahuasca and ibogaine.

Bronner wrote in a blog post that the decriminalization and therapeutic psilocybin legalization campaigns are “already coordinating closely and conserving resources on the statewide signature drive.”

He told Marijuana Moment that “we see this as the perfect one two punch in Oregon, legalizing psilocybin therapy that has so much promise for treating drug addiction, at the same time Oregon shifts to a treatment not jail approach.”

“And 100 percent confident it’s coming together,” he said.

All of this comes amid a national movement to decriminalize psychedelics, with activists in almost 100 cities across the U.S. considering pushing for reduced penalties for substances such as psilocybin and ayahuasca. Decriminalize Nature, which is aiding in and tracking these efforts, is also receiving donations from Bronner, he said.

Decriminalization is also gaining traction on the national stage, with two presidential candidates—South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI)—voicing support for the policy change. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, another candidate, recently said that he’s open to broad decriminalization, while entrepreneur Andrew Yang backs decriminalizing opioids.

Scientist Talks Benefits Of Psychedelics At Federal Health Agency Event

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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North Dakota Activists Submit Measure To Legalize Marijuana In 2020

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North Dakota activists submitted a measure to legalize marijuana for adult use to state officials on Thursday, an organizer confirmed to Marijuana Moment.

Legalize ND, the group behind the proposed statutory initiative, delivered the measure to the secretary of state’s office. It’s expected to be validated within days, after which point petitions will be distributed to collect signatures in support of qualifying for the 2020 ballot.

It’s been about a year since organizers began working on the measure, which would allow adults 21 and older to possess and purchase cannabis for personal use. The proposal is more narrowly tailored than a legalization initiative from the same organization that voters rejected in 2018, however.

The previous version didn’t include any restrictions on cultivation or possession, and it didn’t involve a licensing scheme. By contrast, the new measure would prohibit home cultivation, limit possession to two ounces, impose a 10 percent excise tax and establish a regulatory body to approve licenses for marijuana businesses.

“One of the largest complaints from last time was the mantra of ‘poorly written,'” Legalize ND’s David Owen told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview. “They targeted the lack of legal experience from our team and they targeted a lack of ‘qualified lawyers’ to be drafting language that would go into the state’s statutory law.”

But he said he’s confident the campaign will be successful this time around, in part because they spent months drafting the language with the North Dakota Legislative Council.

Asked what he’d say to voters still on the fence about legalization, Owen replied that it would depend on what their initial concerns were:

“If it’s a concern over home grow, well it’s simple, we don’t have that anymore. If it’s a concern of people having too much, we have a reasonable possession limit now—in their eyes, I still think possession limits are fundamentally arbitrary, but they wanted a possession limit so we have that now. If people go, ‘well what about the quality of the language?’ I can point to how it’s literally written by Legislative Council, so either every attorney who works for the state of North Dakota is incompetent or this is well written.”

In order to qualify for next year’s ballot, the group must collect 13,452 valid signatures from voters before July 6, 2020.

“I think the most important thing isn’t what it would do, but what it would stop from happening,” Owen told local radio station KFGO on Wednesday. “We currently have a system where people are unable to find a job because of a criminal record, we have a system where people are continuing to get marijuana charges and lose their housing, we have families being separated because of parents losing custody over their children for marijuana charges. That all stops when this is legalized.”

Listen to Owen’s radio interview about the new marijuana ballot measure below:

Internal polling that received outside funding, which Owen said cannot be publicly released because of the wishes of the donor, shows the initiative is “slightly ahead” among voters.

In an earlier interview with Marijuana Moment in February, Owen said that it’s “very probable that we can do it” this time around, but much of that depended on the extent to which opposition campaigns are involved and how much funding outside groups are able to offer.

Currently, North Dakota has a medical cannabis program, and the governor signed legislation in May decriminalizing low-level marijuana possession.

Marijuana Summit Will Give Virginia Governor ‘More Tools’ To Back Legalization, Attorney General Says

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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