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Is Marijuana Going to Remain Illegal?

Marijuana policy advocates were dealt a disappointing blow by the Drug Enforcement Administration this month when the enforcement agency decided to keep marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug. The decision conflicts with advocates' claims of marijuana's health benefits. Does this mean that marijuana medical use will remain limited?

Analyst Kristine Harjes is joined by contributor Todd Campbell in this clip of The Motley Fool's Industry Focus: Healthcare podcast to dig into the decision and what it may mean for marijuana research and use.

A full transcript follows the video.

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This podcast was recorded on Aug. 17, 2016.

Kristine Harjes: We want to talk a little bit about marijuana and its federal scheduling, meaning how the federal government classifies the drug. Last Thursday, there was some news that came out that the Drug Enforcement Agency [sic] will keep marijuana as a Schedule 1 substance, meaning that there are no accepted medical uses and a high potential for abuse. This comes on the heels of a push to get marijuana rescheduled to Schedule 2, which would mean that it still has a high potential for abuse, but it does have accepted medical uses. In the press release, the DEA cited that the drug's chemistry is not necessarily known, it's not reproducible, there aren't enough studies out there on its safety, there aren't enough studies proving its efficacy, and essentially, the evidence just isn't there to support reclassification. What do you think, Todd?

Todd Campbell: This is something that you and I have talked about a lot. People who listen to our show understand the value of highly controlled scientific trials. I mean, the ability to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the reason someone is getting an improved outcome is because of whatever they're taking. Absent that kind of proof -- and, unfortunately, the FDA's review of the information that they have available to it, was unable to find that proof -- absent that proof, the HHS could not go to the DEA and say, "Yeah, we think there's truly a medical benefit associated with taking marijuana that's scientifically provable."

That really put the DEA in a box, because marijuana is listed in the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, an international treaty. It has to be either Schedule 1 or Schedule 2 and the only difference between Schedule 1 and Schedule 2 is having a medical use component of it. So, the DEA kept it at Schedule 1, and unfortunately, that deals a little bit of a blow to marijuana policy advocates who really have been doing a very good job of moving forward as far as decriminalizing marijuana and increasing the ability to use it nationwide.

Harjes: And I'd like to point out a bit of a catch-22 going on here, which actually was made clear to me by one of our other Motley Fool healthcare writers, Cory Renauer. He noted that the DEA based this decision on a recommendation from the HHS, which based its recommendation on an FDA review that cited the lack of available evidence to determine that marijuana, in its natural state, has an accepted medical use. And this lack of available evidence cited by the FDA is a direct result of marijuana's Schedule 1 status, which is enforced by the DEA.

It's like, you have this cycle here where, until you can get better evidence on marijuana, you can't loosen the restrictions on it, but it's really, really hard to study it, particularly in its natural form, because of its scheduling.

Campbell: Right. It's Schedule 1, which means that you have to get it from one grow facility, a grow facility down, I think it's in Mississippi. You have to comply with all sorts of regulations on the storage of it, you get recording of it, how you use it, everything -- all of these road blocks that are put up against the scientific research into its benefit. That means that nonprofit researchers -- those at universities and such -- are less likely to embrace that kind of research than, say, for-profit companies that maybe have deeper pockets and access to capital via stock offerings and the like.

Harjes: Right. And interesting like, they are actually expanding the number of DEA-registered marijuana manufacturers. Previously, there was just one, as you had mentioned. But now, hopefully, there should be a couple more coming on board. That is a slight relaxing of the restrictions, but...

Campbell: Right. It's like the DEA said, "Look, we can't give you what you want, but maybe we can meet you halfway, and if we can provide more supply, then maybe that tears down or breaks down some of these barriers to research." Although, looking around and talking to people who are doing the research, it doesn't necessarily seem to be that the supply is the biggest issue that's preventing that. So, I don't know, we'll see how that plays out. 

We also have another entirely different dynamic at play here, because after the announcement came out of the DEA, spokespeople for Hillary Clinton -- who, as everyone knows, is running for president -- have come out and said that if she's elected, she would make it a Schedule 2 drug. So, that opens a whole other can of worms.

Harjes: Right. Clinton has also referred to the laboratories of democracy states rights argument, saying basically, "We should let states figure it out for themselves, the states where it's currently legal. And after we have a little bit more evidence on what actually happens within a state when you have either medical, recreational or both, legalized, then, where do we go from there?"

Campbell: Right. And the other thing the FDA did on this -- I don't want to forget about this -- the other thing the DEA did is, when they were talking to the FDA, the FDA came out and said, "OK, well, we can't show you that there's proof that marijuana is helpful, but what we can do is provide a little bit of guidance toward researchers and how they should design their future studies." And they offered up some different insight, including making sure that any studies that get down from here are not dosing marijuana via smoking, they're using either tinctures or some other way of being able to evaluate it. It seems like the ball moved slightly forward, but you certainly didn't get a first down.

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