Dan Pope has been using medical marijuana for six years to help control the muscle spasms and pain from muscular dystrophy.
“I get very extreme hip, lower back pain and pain going to down to my leg — it gets so bad I can’t move,” said Pope, 44, of Longmont, Colo. “I get very jerky — I couldn’t hold a cup of coffee, my balance and my gait becomes very much affected.”
“By using medical marijuana late in the afternoon [when his symptoms hit], I can find immediate relief from my muscle spasms,” said Pope, who is the volunteer patient outreach coordinator for Sensible Colorado, a non-profit focused on drug policy reform.
Medicinal marijuana is legal in Pope’s state, and legal in varying degrees in 13 others — California, Alaska, Oregon, Washington, Maine, Hawaii, Nevada, Vermont, Montana, Rhode Island, New Mexico, Michigan and New Jersey.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced in February 2009 that the Justice Department will not prosecute local medical marijuana dispensaries who abide by state laws.
Pope, who grows his own plants, may be safe from prosecution. But he still believes the federal government should change its classification of medical marijuana — and increasingly, so do others including the American Medical Association.
On Wednesday, the New England Journal of Medicine published an editorial by two law professors arguing that the federal government should change the status of marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act.
The current classification, the professors argued, stopped researchers from studying the purported medical benefits and health risks of cannabinoid-based medicine even though state laws allowed doctors to prescribe the drug.
“We saw, looking at the different state laws that they’re kind of all over the map in terms of the conditions they approved and the quantities [of marijuana] that they permit,” said Diane Hoffmann, professor of law at the University of Maryland School of Law, who wrote the article with fellow professor Ellen Weber.
“It doesn’t seem like there’s rhyme or reason for those numbers, and what are they based on,” said Hoffmann.
“There has been less than 20, small randomly control trials involving 300 patients in the last 30 years,” said Hoffmann, who said changing the classification of marijuana would allow for much larger clinical trials, and perhaps one day U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulation and standardization of cannabinoids
But as of now, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug — defined as having no medical use and a high risk for abuse.
Anecdotally, medical marijuana users say this classification is mistaken.
“I certainly think the current Schedule I classification is ridiculous,” said Pope. “I have muscular dystrophy, which currently has no cure or treatment. I know that from my personal experience that using medical marijuana that I do have relief from my symptoms.”
More scientific evidence could lead to a change in drug classification. But Hoffmann argues that with marijuana currently classified as a Schedule I drug, doctors cannot access it to study it.
“[Right now] there’s a very elaborate process in terms of approval by the FDA, the DEA and the national institute for drug abuse to be able to perform research on marijuana for medical purposes,” she said.
A spokesperson for DEA declined to comment for this story citing the DEA’s role in enforcement, not policy. Instead the DEA referred ABCNews.com to Office of National Drug Control Policy.
“The Obama Administration has no plans to reclassify marijuana. The FDA approval process is a well-respected and proven method of determining the safety and effectiveness of medications,” the Office of National Drug Control Policy wrote in an e-mailed statement to ABCNews.com. “We support sound research efforts within the FDA-approved process for medication development.”
But marijuana advocates have petitioned courts and the DEA to change the classification of medical marijuana from the highly restricted Schedule I class to at least a Schedule II for years.
“We filed a lawsuit in 1972 I believe it was saying that marijuana should be filed as a Schedule II,” said Dale Gieringer, director of California NORML, a medical marijuana advocacy group.
Gieringer said court cases reached higher and higher in appeals, until advocates were instructed to take the problem to the DEA.
“We have a re-scheduling position that was filed eight years ago to the DEA that has been under investigation for eight years,” said Gieringer.
Gieringer said NORML has yet to hear back on that investigation.