The legal status of medical marijuana in America will remain the same following a long-awaited decision from the Obama Administration. But the DEA plans to remove a major obstacle in the way of marijuana research, according to policy statements released by the DEA this morning. 

For years, medical marijuana advocates and patients have awaited a response to a 2011 petition filed by two former democratic governors, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Christine Gregoire of Washington. The governors called on the DEA to loosen the laws around cannabis in light of its medical value and low potential for abuse compared to other controlled substances like heroin.

But the DEA disagrees. In a letter written last July and recently published on the federal register, Chuck Rosenberg - the head of the DEA - said that the administration had denied the request based on current medical research of marijuana. 

"The HHS [Department of Health and Human Services] concluded that marijuana has a high potential for abuse, has no accepted medical use in the United States, and lacks an acceptable level of safety for use even under medical supervision," Rosenberg wrote.

The DEA's statement is mind-boggling considering that the majority of U.S. states have accepted the legalized medicinal use of cannabis. As of this year, 26 states have legalized medical marijuana through state legislatures or ballot initiatives, which means that the federal government is out of touch with public opinion and the majority of state lawmakers. By listing cannabis as a Schedule I drug in the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), the federal government defines cannabis as a substance that has no medical value and is as dangerous as heroin

Ironically, that scheduling makes it difficult for researchers to verify marijuana's health effects. As a Schedule I drug, cannabis is among the most tightly restricted substances. That means researching the benefits and potential risks of cannabis is costly and time-consuming as labs face a long and expensive process of getting the necessary approvals for their studies.

Universities get green light to grow marijuana

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The Obama Administration isn't budging on the legality of cannabis. However, the DEA has decided to make marijuana more accessible to labs by expanding the number of approved cannabis growers. 

Previously, only the University of Mississippi was authorized to cultivate cannabis for medical research. As Catherine Saint Louis and Matt Apuzzo of The New York Times note, "This restriction has so limited the supply of marijuana federally approved for research purposes that scientists said it could often take years to obtain it and in some cases it was impossible to get."

But other universities will soon be able to grow marijuana for medical research. In a policy paper released today, DEA chief Chuck Rosenberg said that the administration will begin accepting applications from institutions that want to grow marijuana for medical research. Expanding supply will be beneficial according to John Hudak - a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who has commented extensively on the issue of marijuana's classification as a controlled substance. 

“It will create a supply of research-grade marijuana that is diverse, but more importantly, it will be competitive and you will have growers motivated to meet the demand of researchers,” Hudak told the New York Times. He added that broadening supply could mean researchers will be able to access cannabis strains with high levels of THC, which the University of Mississippi doesn't supply. 

“If you were a researcher who thought a product with high THC would help someone with a painful cancer, you were out of luck. You couldn’t access high-THC marijuana in the same way you could buy it in a market in Colorado” or another legal state.

Growing licenses will be hard to get

However, the new licenses will be few and difficult to get based on Rosenberg's remarks. In the policy paper, he wrote that "the CSA does not authorize DEA to register an unlimited number of manufacturers."

So instead of issuing licenses to any university that wants one, institutions will be vetted based on whether or not an additional growing operation is "necessary to provide an adequate and uninterrupted supply of marijuana (including extracts and other derivatives thereof) to researchers in the United States."

In other words, access to marijuana for medical research will remain tightly controlled.

h/t NPR, The New York Times.

Banner image: Sep 18, 2014: United States President Barack Obama during an official meeting with the President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko in Washington, DC (USA), (Drop of Light / Shutterstock.com)