Last week, the acting chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration called medical marijuana "a joke" during a Q&A with reporters. Now, medical marijuana patients are calling for his head, with an online petition demanding his resignation attracting over 10,000 signatures on change.org.
Here's what administrator Chuck Rosenberg said about medical marijuana, via CBS News:
"What really bothers me is the notion that marijuana is also medicinal -- because it's not," Rosenberg said in a briefing to reporters. "We can have an intellectually honest debate about whether we should legalize something that is bad and dangerous, but don't call it medicine -- that is a joke."
"There are pieces of marijuana -- extracts or constituents or component parts -- that have great promise" medicinally, he said. "But if you talk about smoking the leaf of marijuana -- which is what people are talking about when they talk about medicinal marijuana -- it has never been shown to be safe or effective as a medicine."
Rosenberg's argument that smoking marijuana "has never been shown to be safe or effective as a medicine" has been contradicted by numerous studies. A meta-analysis of 79 medical marijuana studies involving 6,462 patients, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association earlier this year, found "moderate-quality evidence to support the use of cannabinoids for the treatment of chronic pain and spasticity." There was low-quality evidence suggesting marijuana had therapeutic applications for other conditions as well.
The finding that marijuana is effective at treating chronic pain is a big deal. High-caliber prescription painkillers are highly addictive and potentially deadly when misused -- they killed over 16,000 people via overdose in 2013, according to the CDC. Numerous studies have found that at the state level, the availability of medical marijuana is associated with a significant reduction of painkiller abuse rates and overdose deaths -- presumably, as patients opt to treat their pain with marijuana rather than painkillers.
Rosenberg's statements about medical marijuana aren't surprising when you consider that they comport with the official position of the DEA. The Administration considers marijuana a "Schedule 1" controlled substance, which among other things means it has "no currently accepted medical use." Most researchers reject this claim, however, with organizations including Brookings Institution, the American Medical Association, and the ACLU arguing that the current designation is inappropriate.
Given all this, marijuana advocates are furious at what they see as the DEA's dismissal of the science behind medical pot.
"My mom is a legal patient in Rhode Island, and she uses medical marijuana to deal with the severe pain she experiences from multiple sclerosis," said Tom Angell, chairman of the group Marijuana Majority, which started the petition. "Medical cannabis is no joke to my family or the millions of other American families who have seen its real benefits."
In an e-mailed statement, a DEA spokesperson sought to clarify Rosenberg's remarks. "To clarify, Acting Administrator Rosenberg indicated that marijuana should be subject to the same levels of approval and scrutiny as any other substance intended for use as a medicine. DEA supports efforts to research potential medical uses of marijuana. To this end, DEA has never denied a registration request from anyone conducting marijuana research using FDA approved protocols."
The spokesman added, "acting Administrator Rosenberg was also clear to point out there are a number of marijuana components and/or extracts which appear to show promise as medicines, but have not yet been approved as safe and effective. His comments reflected the fact that FDA has not approved any medicinal uses for smoked marijuana."
This wouldn't be the first time Rosenberg has courted controversy over marijuana during his tenure as DEA administrator. Over the summer, he said that marijuana was "probably not" as dangerous as heroin, and then one week later clarified that "heroin is clearly more dangerous than marijuana." For the record, over 8,200 people died from heroin in 2013, compared to zero known marijuana overdose deaths.
The previous DEA chief, Michele Leonhart, had a rocky relationship with the Obama administration as well -- especially when it came to drug policy issues, which she often criticized the administration on. Leonhart left her post under a cloud of scandal earlier this year, prompting cheers from drug policy reform advocates and hopes that her successor would change the DEA's tone on certain drug policy issues.