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State Department Says DEA Is Wrong on Marijuana Monopoly

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The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has long held the position that international drug control treaties to which the U.S. is a party prevent the federal government from granting more licenses to grow marijuana for scientific research.

The U.S. State Department just said the DEA is wrong.

Since 1968, the only legal source of cannabis for studies in the country has been University of Mississippi, which operates under a license from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Scientists have complained that it is difficult to obtain marijuana from the facility and that even when their applications are granted, the product is often of poor quality.

Other facilities have applied for licenses, but the DEA has shot them down, even overruling recommendations from the agency’s own administrative law judge.

For example, in denying an application from Professor Lyle Craker of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in 2009, DEA claimed that his “proposed registration cannot be reconciled with United States obligations under the treaty.”

Craker’s “desire to become registered in order to achieve [the] goal of ending the Federal Government’s monopoly on the wholesale distribution of marijuana cannot be squared with the requirement under the Convention that there be precisely such a monopoly,” Michele Leonhart, then DEA deputy administrator, wrote.

But in written response sent to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) released Thursday, the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, said that DEA’s interpretation of the treaties is wrong.

A country issuing more than one cultivation license “would not be a sufficient basis to conclude that the party was acting in contravention” of the treaties, the bureau said.

Several other nations, including Canada, Israel and the United Kingdom, allow for more than a single source of cannabis for research.

Citing a section of the treaties that lays out the restrictions on the supply of controlled drugs, the State Department points out that the language is plural and thus allows for multiple producers:

 The agency (or agencies) shall designate the areas in which, and the plots of land on which, cultivation of the [cannabis plant]for the purposes of producing [cannabis]shall be permitted; [Note: the use of the terms “areas” and “plots” would not support the conclusion that a single area or plot is mandated by the Convention.]

 Only cultivators licensed by the agency {or agencies) shall be authorized to engage in such cultivation; [Note: again, use of the term “cultivators” suggests that the Convention contemplated more than on cultivator could be licensed]

“Nothing in the text of the Single Convention, nor in the Commentary, suggests that there is a limitation on the number of licenses that can be issued,” the State Department writes.

While the situation has long been referred to by advocates as the “NIDA monopoly,” the blame lies squarely at DEA’s feet. NIDA Director Nora Volkow testified at a Senate hearing last year that there is “no scientific reason” for the monopoly, that it “is not something NIDA chose to do” and that without it, “efficiency, effectiveness, availability for research would be better.”

When directly asked if she would support allowing additional sources of cannabis, Volkow said, “The answer is yes.”

Lawmakers in Congress have continually pressed the Obama administration to end the monopoly.

“For years, the DEA has cited this international treaty as the reason for limiting medical research,” Gillibrand said in a press release announcing the new State Department position. “Now that the State Department has confirmed this treaty should not be a barrier to expanding research, the DEA should issue new licenses to supply medical researchers and stop letting antiquated ideology stand in the way of modern medical science.”

The State Department’s position should carry great weight within the administration, since it, much more than DEA, is where U.S. foreign policy is set, interpreted and carried out.

“With this news, President Obama should direct the DEA to immediately begin the process of issuing additional licenses,” said Mike Liszewski, director of government affairs for Americans for Safe Access. “Breaking up the DEA-mandated NIDA monopoly would benefit researchers and patients alike, and would not offend treaty obligations.”

Photo Courtesy of Eric Limon.

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