The Legal Status of Cannabinoids & Cannabis

Be sure to check out Part I (“What’s the Deal With Cannabinoids”) and Part II (“Potential Benefits and Applications of Cannabinoids“), so you can pick up some of the terminology and science behind cannabinoids before digging into the laws and politics of the situation.

Generally speaking, possession of Cannabis, most Cannabinoid Oils, or Marijuana is illegal in the United States. Of course, most people have already heard that it’s legal in some states such as Colorado.  However, even in the “legal” states it remains illegal on the Federal level and considered a federal offense.

Medical research is necessary to support the validity of Federal legalization of “medical marijuana” through identification of potential therapeutic benefits, risks, and side effects of applicable treatment for various conditions or diseases.  Unfortunately, there are many barriers to conducting research on cannabinoids in the United States including the 1961 Single Convention “treaty”, which concludes that the United States Government must maintain a monopoly on the distribution of cannabis material for research purposes.

Of course, the DEA Schedule I classification of cannabis is another contributing factor to lack of research as well as the bureaucratic gridlock situation between three different Federal agencies, which are each tasked with different goals and objectives.  Schedule I drugs are categorized as “drugs with no currently accepted medical use, a high potential for abuse, and the most dangerous of all drugs due to potentially severe psychological or physical dependence”.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

The FDA is a part of the Department of Health and Human Services. The FDA is tasked with ensuring the quality of food and medicines in the United States, while certifying medications perform properly with minimal negative health outcomes.  Of course, this requires extensive research in order to evaluate the effectiveness and safety of medications.  Some research is done within the FDA, and some is done outside of the FDA.

This is where the first part of efforts to Federally legalize cannabis and cannabinoids fails, because the FDA deals with food and drugs (medicine) but not recreational drugs.  Technically, cannabis isn’t a medicine.  Furthermore, the FDA has very stringent rules regarding the amount of active and inactive ingredients within each drug along with the rules concerning the required research to affirm a drug performs as it claims .

If you’ve ever grown a garden, then you know there’s actually quite a bit of variation in the quality of product within a given harvest.  The same is true for cannabis.  Each of the potential active components like THC and CBD have a great deal of variation based on growing conditions.  It’s merely impossible to provide a consistency that would allow it to be called a medication under FDA regulations.  That’s not to say the cannabinoids themselves can’t be considered a medicine. In Part II of this series we mentioned Marinol, which is a medication with synthetic THC as it’s active ingredient.  Even though the FDA has cleared this form of THC (Marinol), it’s only been approved through research for chemotherapy induced nausea/vomiting and AIDS associated anorexia.  Consequently, any individual or combination of the 110+ cannabinoids must be researched for each disease and/or symptoms of intended use in order to achieve a similar FDA approval.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH)

Similar to the FDA, the NIH is also part of  Department of Health and Human Services and part of it’s job is to help keep us healthy.  The NIH often comes up in many conversations, both positive and negative, concerning cannabinoids.  Hence, we’ve provided links to various PubMed papers throughout our three part series on cannabinoids.  PubMed is part of the National Institute for Biotechnology Information, which is part of the National Library of Medicine (NLM).  Then, of course, the NLM is part of the NIH.  This is merely one set of the branches within the enormous NIH.

Another branch of the NIH is the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).  It has a very specific job to research and keep United States citizens safe from harmful recreational drug use, which includes Marijuana / Cannabis and the products derived from it.  The NIDA contracts with the University of Mississippi to grow cannabis for research, and all samples for research must be approved by both the NIDA, the FDA as an Investigational New Drug (IND), and the DEA. In addition, if the research is directly funded by the NIH, it must be approved by the NIDA, FDA as an IND, DEA, and the NIH itself.  Currently, due to this extensive approval process only 8-12 researches a year are allowed access to the research grown cannabis.  This demonstrates part of the reason the United States has little research on the topic.

Neither the NIH nor the NIDA have a stance on the legalization of cannabis other than research on potential beneficial uses, because all of their work is backed by science and investigation.  This doesn’t mean they are ignorant to public opinion.  Instead, they must approach the topic in a very scientific manner.

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA)

Thus far, none of the previously mentioned entities create public policy.  They simply follow policy and provide information and research.  Conversely, the United States Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) establishes and enforces laws.  Until recently, the DEA had shown zero interest in initiating any changes regarding the policies on cannabis in any form, which includes medical and research applications.

This came at odds quickly with states that legalized cannabis for medical purposes or marijuana for recreational use.  At the state level usage may have been legal, but at the Federal level it was still considered a crime with the DEA enforcing those laws.  States that were pro-legalization have encountered DEA drug raids on legally licensed medical marijuana dispensaries and growing facilities.  In other words, just because a State said it was legal didn’t make it so.  People could still get arrested, have their assets seized, and spend time in prison.

However, the DEA is now starting to change it’s course, though some of it was through pressure at the Congressional level.  In 2014 the US House of Representatives presented and passed H.R. 4660, a resolution that would defund the DEA’s ability to raid dispensaries in states where legalization has occurred and potentially giving the states the right to fully enforce their own policy.

Although, the greatest promise for increased research comes from a DEA letter to Congress from December 2015.  The letter not only identifies the potential change in 2016 of cannabis classification from a Schedule I drug to a Schedule II or III drug (see page 5 of the letter) but also many other issues are addressed as well in the 25 page letter (scroll to the bottom of the the linked article to read the actual letter to Congress.)

Status of Cannabis in united states
The current legal status of Cannabis in the United States. Image Via Wikipedia.

The State of Cannabis in the States

Currently in Kansas, any possession of Cannabis could result in misdemeanor charges with $2500 fine and 1 year in jail for first offense. Subsequent offenses or possession of > 449 grams could result in felony charges with $100,000 and 3 1/2 to 4 years in prison.  However, the political climate may be changing in Kansas.  For instance, Wichita voters attempted decriminalization of possession of marijuana with only a $50 ticket for minor possession. Although, the Kansas Supreme Court struck down this attempt in January 2016.  Additionally, the 2015 / 2016 legislative agenda included 15 different bills to modify various legal aspects of cannabis in the state, ranging from compassionate care acts to eliminating criminal and professional penalties for for medical marijuana.

Currently, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and Alaska have legalized marijuana for all uses, medical and recreational.  Another 22 states have legalized marijuana for medical applications.

Why are the States so interested in changing the legal status of marijuana?  In 1969 only 12% of Americans supported legalization measures, according to a CBS Poll during that time period.  According to a Gallup poll in 2000 only 31% of Americans supported   A similar Gallup poll in 2015 resulted in a whopping 58% of Americans supporting the legalization of marijuana.  Many factors are involved with changing opinions about the acceptance of recreational use of marijuana or belief in its potential as a medicine.

Support of medical professionals is in the forefront of the changing views.  In 2013 the New England Journal of Medicine released their poll results on medical marijuana, which showed 76% of US physicians supported the use of medical marijuana during a hypothetical medical scenario involving a breast cancer patient.  In fact, even opponents of medical marijuana like Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon and media reporter on health topics, have changed their positions over the years.  If you’d like to know more about Dr. Gupta’s changing view, you can watch his CNN special, “Weed”:

The Federal Stance and Changing It

As explained above, Federally the DEA enforces the existing framework of laws, and the FDA and NIH also take their cues from the legislative branch of government.  We’ve mentioned the the changing attitude towards legalization at the State level.  Similarly, legislation for various forms of legalization have surfaced at the Federal level over the years including H.R. 1013 that removes Federal level regulation from the question entirely.
Many of these bills currently lack the support to pass, but frequent introduction of bills involving various forms of legalization reflect the changing attitudes of both American citizens and elected representatives.  With that said, it’s also possible to help move things along faster in order to expedite more research on cannabinoids as well.  Contact your state Senators and Representatives.  If you are a resident of Kansas, you can find yours here.

The Future

It would be impossible to call cannabinoids a “cure all” as seen in many Facebook ads and posts.  However, we’re presently at an exciting point in history, where we could soon have resources and research necessary to fully determine cannabinoids’ potential applications in medicine.

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