July 12, 2011 -- Without medical marijuana, Scott Rozman swears, he wouldn't be alive today.
At 30, Rozman was the youngest documented case of teratoma and angiosarcoma, a rare and aggressive cancer that his doctors treated in the middle of his chest with equally aggressive rounds of chemotherapy. The chemo was so intense that he would throw up 40 to 50 times a day during treatment, unable to keep any food down. He lost 60 pounds during the first two months alone, making him potentially too weak to finish out his treatment
"The doctors thought I was a dead man," Rozman, now 46 and a life coach in Guttenberg, N.J., said.
But then Mary Jane came into his life.
As a last-ditch effort, his doctors prescribed him marijuana because of its purported ability to stave off chemotherapy nausea. Not only was he able to keep food down again, the marijuana calmed him and helped him cope psychologically with the harrowing experience of the chemotherapy sessions. Weed had done for Rozman what no traditional anti-nausea medication could.
The Department of Justice's Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), however, would beg to differ.
Although 16 states recognize marijuana as a drug with important medicinal properties, the DEA has shot down a petition to reclassify marijuana as such, citing that it has "no accepted medical use." The result is that marijuana will remain within the strictest categorization of restricted substances, alongside heroin and LSD.
"As a doctor and medical researcher, I find the DEA's decision unfortunate," said Dr. Igor Grant, a neuropsychiatrist and director of the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at the University of California-San Diego. "It looks like they underplayed what positive information there is in the literature about marijuana. This policy is guided more by certain kinds of beliefs in the dangers of marijuana, at the expense of advance of medical knowledge for patients."
The DEA's refusal, laid out in a June 21 letter from DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart to the organizations who filed the petition back in 2002, marks yet another bump in the road for patients, doctors and activists fighting for improved access to what they deem a vitally therapeutic medication.
"The statement 'it has no accepted medical use' is simply wrong as a statement of fact," said Rob MacCoun, psychologist and professor of Law and Public Policy at University of California Berkeley Law School. "There is now considerable evidence showing medical benefits, at or exceeding standards of evidence for many other pharmaceuticals. Prescribing physicians in over a dozen states clearly see an accepted medical value for their patients."
Americans for Safe Access, one of the organizations petitioning the DEA, already has plans to appeal the decision, taking the federal government to court, and if necessary, the Supreme Court, in order to argue for the medicinal value of marijuana.
"Frankly, we're ready to go head to head with the Obama administration on this issue," said Kris Hermes, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access. "We have science on our side and we're hopeful the court will see it that way."
Calls made to the DEA for comment were not returned.
The original petition sent to the DEA in 2002 called for reclassifying marijuana into schedule III, IV, or V, all of which would acknowledge its potential for medical use and place its threat as a potentially harmful and/or addictive substance as less severe than class I and II drugs such as heroine, cocaine, amphetamines and morphine.
Such a change means that marijuana would remain a controlled substance, but that its use in medical contexts would not be considered illegal under federal law, as is the case now.
It would also make it easier for studies on marijuana's medicinal properties to take place. Grant of the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research said that even with federal compliance with his research on medicinal marijuana, each study takes at least a year to even garner approval because of all the regulatory red tape surrounding use of a schedule I drug in trials.
Berkeley's MacCoun said, "Schedule I is a barrier to research and to physician practice. Under federal law, it precludes physician prescriptions, putting state and federal laws in conflict for [those] states that have legalized medical marijuana."
War on Medicinal Marijuana?
The DEA's decision comes on the coattails of another move by the Department of Justice to reinforce federal restrictions on marijuana. U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole released a memo June 29 that reaffirms the department of justice's right and intention to prosecute large-scale medical marijuana cultivation operations and dispensaries even in states where they are operating in compliance with state laws.
The Cole memo purportedly "clarifies" the landmark memo written in 2009 by then Deputy Attorney General David Ogden, which suggested that the DOJ would not bother to prosecute those involved in state-sanctioned medicinal marijuana distribution.
Cole's clarification puts everyone from growers to pro-medicinal marijuana public officials within the DOJ's sights for prosecution. Only patients with prescriptions escape possible legal action from the government.
This regulatory dance emerges because the states that allow medicinal marijuana are in conflict with the federal drug laws that criminalize possession of marijuana, regardless of its intended use and these federal laws trump those of the states.
Obama campaigned with the promise not to interfere with states' rights in this area, so the Cole memo has been seen by marijuana advocates as the administration's backpedalling in response to the rapid proliferation of cannabis providers and distributors cropping up in recent years.
"The government's position is very clear," Hermes said. "The number of raids on medical marijuana distributors is staggering, far beyond what the Bush administration was doing. And because the federal government won't acknowledge marijuana as a medicinal substance, those arrested have absolutely no defense they can bring in federal court."
Hermes said be believes the "whole point" of the Cole memo was to create a "culture of fear" among growers, distributors, and patients.
Mitch Woolhiser, 43, happens to be all three. Diagnosed with seizure disorder in 1995, the medicinal marijuana distributor from Edgewater, Colo., got his prescription after reading studies suggesting that marijuana has anti-seizure properties.
He was able to wean himself slowly off the seizure meds that were straining his liver and today, years later, is seizure free. Now he provides medicinal-grade marijuana for at least 100 regular customers in the Denver area.
"The Ogden memo kind of opened the floodgates here in Colorado and that's what brought people into the industry of distributing marijuana, including me," he said. "It's very regulated, we do lab tests for THC levels [the major active compound in cannabis] and that makes everything more regulated for the patients.
"But if you go after the distributors, you're really just hurting the patients," he said. "You're taking away their ability to safely and conveniently get their medicine, and instead pushing them to buy it on the street."