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EDITORIAL

Let’s stop treating pot like heroin

New federal study on its medical potential could lead the DEA to approve reclassification of the once ‘evil weed.’

Canna Provisions owner Meg Sanders is a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit that hopes to end the national prohibition on cannabis and ease restrictions on businesses that stop them from accessing federal loans, accepting credit cards, and engaging with traditional banks.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Gyasi Sellers, a native of Springfield, was among the first entrepreneurs to get a license to deliver marijuana in the state. His mission was “to serve communities that have suffered under the war on drugs and to provide job training and skills to ex-offenders.” But because marijuana is still an illegal drug under federal law, his highly regulated state business can’t get a loan from the federal Small Business Administration.

Canna Provisions operates several award-winning marijuana retail shops in Western Massachusetts, and its founder and CEO Meg Sanders was voted Corporate Citizen of the Year last year by the Lee Chamber of Commerce. But Sanders is barred from posting jobs or news about workshops with MassHire because the state-run program gets federal funds. Her employees have had their personal bank accounts shut down and some have been denied mortgages because of the source of their income.

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Sellers and Sanders are among the plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit aimed at bringing those in the state’s now perfectly legal marijuana businesses in from their still federally mandated outlaw status.

And despite the fact that 38 states allow the legal sale of marijuana and two dozen of them allow it for recreational use, its federal classification as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substance Act — right up there with heroin, LSD, and ecstasy — criminalizes anything involving interstate commerce or federal funds.

The concept of marijuana as the “evil weed” remains alive and well on the federal lawbooks, depriving local consumers and businesses of the ability to, for example, take out credit cards or access payroll processing services.

The suit, filed in US District Court in Springfield against the US Justice Department, doesn’t seek to overturn the federal role in regulating marijuana in interstate commerce but rather argues that in states where marijuana has been legalized those federal restrictions constitute “an unjustified vestige of a long-abandoned policy” and should be declared unconstitutional.

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It’s a legally challenging case to make, and even Josh Schiller, attorney for those local plaintiffs, concedes it’s likely to take two years or so to make its way through the courts.

Meanwhile a far more straightforward solution — the reclassification of marijuana from a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substance Act to a Schedule III drug (in a class with prescription ketamine, testosterone, and Tylenol with codeine) — is finally making some headway in Washington, albeit at a glacial pace.

President Biden took the lead, asking the secretary of Health and Human Services and the attorney general to “expeditiously” review the classification of marijuana at the same time he pardoned those charged with marijuana possession under federal law. That was in October 2022.

Last month a 250-page review by scientists from the US Food and Drug Administration concluded, based on its findings, “that marijuana be placed in Schedule III of the CSA.” It noted that use of the drug was unlikely to lead to physical dependence and “the likelihood of serious outcomes is low.”

And while it noted more medical research is needed on its efficacy as a form of medical treatment — something currently hampered by its Schedule I classification — it did say, “On balance, the available data indicate that there is some credible scientific support to substantiate the use of marijuana in the treatment of pain, anorexia related to certain medical conditions; and nausea and vomiting (e.g. chemotherapy-induced).”

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However, the study was actually concluded in August and sent along to the Drug Enforcement Agency, which remains the final arbiter of reclassification. It was only disclosed in January because a Texas lawyer sued Health and Human Services for its release.

The study certainly runs counter to the 2016 HHS report that concluded, “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.” The DEA followed by rejecting its reclassification.

But since then states where marijuana has been legalized have indeed been the laboratories that are providing increased data on its use and its possible abuse.

There are, of course, problems with the increased potency of today’s cultivated variety of the drug and issues of labeling as noted in the study and on this editorial page.

But attorneys general from 12 states where marijuana is legal — including Massachusetts and Rhode Island — have written to the DEA in support of rescheduling “as a public safety imperative.”

They point to the fact that rescheduling “increases the ability to research cannabis to determine the physical and mental impacts of cannabis use,” and “removes a major obstacle for legitimate cannabis operators” to take “ordinary business [tax] deductions” currently not allowed.

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Cannabis is indeed big business today; the AGs estimate it will hit $53 billion in sales nationally by 2027. Gross annual sales in Massachusetts hit a record $1.56 billion in 2023, according to the Cannabis Control Commission.

The genie of legal marijuana is clearly out of the bottle and not going back any time soon. It has already meant law enforcement can focus its efforts on more serious drug trafficking, not busting kids on the Common for smoking a joint. But only the DEA can bring the marijuana industry and medical research on the drug out of the legal limbo to which it is currently consigned. That “expeditious” review — now at least half accomplished — needs to be just as expeditiously concluded.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.