Opinion: The Cognitive Dissonance of Marijuana

Aug 17, 2016

Credit Talia Marisa / Flickr

You’d be forgiven for being confused about whether marijuana has medicinal qualities. On the one hand, 25 states and Washington, D.C. have legalized the use of marijuana specifically for medicinal purposes (Indiana isn’t one of them). On the other hand, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) just last week reaffirmed that marijuana will remain a Schedule 1 drug, and DEA chief Chuck Rosenberg stated that marijuana has no “currently accepted medical use.” This insistence, and its indication of our national cognitive dissonance, was the most widely reported part of the DEA announcement.

But the DEA also cracked open the door for a way out of our confusion. They announced that they will allow private companies to begin growing marijuana for research purposes. This is a promising sign because it could help us settle the question: what, if any, medicinal qualities does marijuana have?  By allowing companies to grow marijuana for research purposes, the DEA may allow scientists to conduct higher quality research and, perhaps, for the research to happen at a more rapid clip (though some medicinal marijuana advocates are dubious about the prospects). For the most optimistic of medicinal marijuana advocates, this may begin the process to convince the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that marijuana has medicinal purposes. If successful, this would indicate to the DEA that there is an “accepted medical use” of marijuana. 

Put another way, the DEA’s position regarding the medicinal qualities of marijuana is grounded on the FDA’s position that there is no scientifically “accepted medical use” for marijuana. The FDA does not recognize such uses because, the story goes, there isn’t the kind of rigorous scientific support for the conclusion that marijuana has medical benefits. 

As I’ve recently argued regarding gun control, I fully support grounding our policies on the robust conclusions of science.

I can appreciate hesitancy about endorsing the medicinal qualities of marijuana unless there is robust scientific support. But this leads us to an uncomfortable question for the DEA. What's the scientific basis for categorizing marijuana as Schedule 1?

As we saw with the recent technocratic reversal on the medical benefits of flossing, policies that are supposed to be based on science may actually have no such basis at all. Moreover, categorizing marijuana as Schedule 1 has costs. Aside from its limits on individual freedom, this categorization continues to slow research: research on Schedule 1 drugs requires more approvals, more security, and so, more time. If the medical properties of marijuana require a scientific foundation, it only follows that the dangerousness of marijuana also requires some scientific basis. There doesn’t appear to be any such basis.

It seems to me that the DEA’s continued stance is emblematic of the ‘status quo’ bias. Because marijuana is currently categorized as a Schedule 1 drug, scientific evidence is needed to re-schedule it. The DEA is most content to maintain the status quo and needs reasons to change. But it is just as valid to reframe the question and ask what scientific evidence supports categorizing marijuana as Schedule 1. In fact, this framing seems more important—because categorizing marijuana as Schedule 1 limits freedom and slows scientific research, the DEA needs to justify the ‘status quo’ just as much as, if not more than, the FDA needs evidence of marijuana’s medicinal value. 

 

Abraham Schwab is an associate professor of philosophy and medical ethicist at IPFW.

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