WASHINGTON — Delivering a big blow to backers of pot legalization, the Obama administration said Thursday that it would keep marijuana classified as one of the nation’s most dangerous drugs, similar to heroin and LSD.
The long-awaited decision by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration keeps intact a 1970 law that lists marijuana as Schedule 1 drug, one defined as having no medical value. That runs counter to decisions made by 26 states that have already approved use of the drug as medicine.
The DEA’s ruling shocked legalization supporters, many of whom had considered President Barack Obama an ally after the Justice Department decided in 2013 to allow Washington state and Colorado to sell recreational marijuana.
“While I haven’t read it, the outcome puts the DEA totally out of touch with the Justice Department, current research, the medical profession, patients and the public,” said Christine Gregoire, the former Democratic governor of Washington state.
In 2011, Gregoire and former Rhode Island Republican Gov. Lincoln Chafee filed a petition asking the DEA to reclassify marijuana, a move that would have allowed pharmacies to fill pot prescriptions. She said it was “very disappointing” that the DEA had failed to recognize that the drug had any therapeutic value.
Mason Tvert, a spokesman for the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project, called the DEA’s decision “mind-boggling.”
“It is intellectually dishonest and completely indefensible,” he said. “Not everyone agrees marijuana should be legal, but few will deny that it is less harmful than alcohol and many prescription drugs.”
In Maine, voters will decide this fall whether to legalize recreational use of marijuana. The ballot question would allow Mainers to possess 2.5 ounces of marijuana and give the state regulatory power over cultivation and retail stores with a 10 percent sales tax on marijuana products. Maine already is one of 24 states to have legalized medical marijuana.
The DEA announced its decision in Thursday’s Federal Register, publishing a letter sent to Democratic Govs. Jay Inslee of Washington and Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island.
In the letter, DEA Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg said the agency had concluded that marijuana still has a high potential for abuse, has no accepted medical use, and is not safe even under medical supervision.
“The petition is, therefore, hereby denied,” Rosenberg told the governors.
Rosenberg elaborated in an interview with National Public Radio, saying he gave “enormous weight” to advice from the Food and Drug Administration.
“This decision isn’t based on danger,” said Rosenberg, who was appointed by Obama in 2015. “This decision is based on whether marijuana, as determined by the FDA, is a safe and effective medicine. And it’s not.”
The decision upholds the classification of marijuana as one of the most dangerous drugs as defined by Congress and President Richard Nixon in the Controlled Substances Act 46 years ago.
The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws said the DEA had chosen to reaffirm a “flat-earth position,” while the National Cannabis Industry Association said the ruling “flies in the face of objective science and overwhelming public opinion.”
Marijuana opponents hailed the decision and predicted it would stop the momentum of the nation’s legalization movement.
“To be honest, it vindicates us,” said Kevin Sabet, president of the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, one of the few who had predicted the DEA would not reschedule the drug.
Sabet said the ruling would “raise eyebrows in the legalization community” among those who had pressured the DEA to reschedule marijuana but added: “This now sets them way back.”
The ruling will up the pressure on Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton to follow through on her promise to reschedule marijuana if she wins the election in November.
And in the meantime, Obama is sure to face continued pressure to override the DEA’s decision before his term expires. His administration drew praise from many pot backers three years ago when the Justice Department said states could proceed with sales of marijuana as long as they do a good job of policing themselves.
Legalization backers wanted Obama to push for full-scale legalization, but with federal laws still on the books still banning the drug, states will continue to operate in the same legal gray area.
“President Obama always said he would let science — and not ideology — dictate policy, but in this case his administration is upholding a failed drug war approach instead of looking at real, existing evidence that marijuana has medical value,” said Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority, another pro-legalization group. He said states should be allowed to set their own policies, “unencumbered by an outdated ‘Reefer Madness’ mentality that some in law enforcement still choose to cling to.”
In 2015, the DEA spent $18 million to destroy marijuana plants under its “cannabis eradication” program. And Rosenberg angered pot advocates last year when he dismissed the possibility that smoking marijuana had any medical value, calling the idea “a joke.”
On Capitol Hill, Oregon Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer said the DEA’s decision was “not right or fair,” with a majority of Americans now backing full legalization.
“It is imperative, as part of the most progressive administration on marijuana in history, that the DEA work to end the failed prohibition of marijuana,” Blumenauer said.
The DEA did make one concession, saying it would remove the government’s monopoly that now allows one institution — the University of Mississippi — to grow marijuana for research purposes.
“As long as folks abide by the rules, and we’re going to regulate that, we want to expand the availability, the variety, the type of marijuana available to legitimate researchers,” Rosenberg said. “If our understanding of the science changes, that could very well drive a new decision.”
BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.
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