The DEA Suddenly Wants to Be Reasonable?  Don’t Put on Your Party Hats Yet.

By: Gary Michael Smith, Esq.

Due in part to the United States being signatory to the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and due in part to the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (CSA), navigating the perilous backwaters of federal drug regulation is far from easy.  Both international treaty and the CSA require regulatory controls over psychoactive substances.  Undeservedly, cannabis is a Schedule 1 narcotic, making it unavailable for prescription or accepted medical use.  However, these same treaties and federal laws are supposed to encourage the study of cannabis and other Schedule 1 substances.

At least, that is the theory.

Regulation of Schedule 1 substances like cannabis has been vested in the DEA, to whom scientists must apply for permission to study, cultivate, or manufacture. For scientists such as Arizona’s own Dr. Sue Sisley, the nation’s lead researcher on the efficacy of cannabis to treat post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans, the DEA has been frustratingly difficult.  Sisley’s work has been stymied by DEA’s apathy and bureaucracy.

To comply with federal law, Sisley is required to use cannabis grown exclusively on a single 12-acre farm sanctioned by the DEA and run by the University of Mississippi.  The university provides Sisley with subpar and moldy cannabis in powdered form and tainted with extraneous material like sticks and seeds. Sisley has waited years for DEA to approve her request to source DEA-sanctioned cannabis from an alternative supplier (of which there are presently none, because DEA refuses to sanction additional cultivators).  Sisley even got Congress involved.

Several United States Senators asked DEA and the United States Department of Justice what the cause was for the holdup.   They too received no answers. Sisley finally filed suit against the DEA in June to force the issue. Sisley wants access to better quality cannabis for her research.   Sisley’s lawsuit alleges that DEA sat on her applications since 2016, processing none of them.

Until this week, DEA has been conspicuously silent about it.

On Monday, August 26, the DEA issued a surprise press release stating that the agency is “moving forward to facilitate and expand scientific and medical research for marijuana.”  The DEA’s press release goes on to read:

“DEA intends to propose new regulations that will govern the marijuana growers’ program for scientific and medical research. The new rules will help ensure DEA can evaluate the applications under the applicable legal standard and conform the program to relevant laws.” Translation: DEA may (or may not) change its policies.  

If one were to take a cynical view, Monday’s DEA press release may be nothing more than lip service being paid to try to create an appearance of action aimed at avoiding Sisley’s lawsuit.  Regardless, the press release does nothing for Sisley and nothing for our returning veterans (of whom the VA estimates 12-20 percent suffer from PTSD).

DEA can do better, and mere words are not enough.

Gary Smith head shotGary Michael Smith is an attorney and arbitrator and partner in the Phoenix Arizona-based Smith Saks Kuzmich PLC.   He is also a founding director and current president of the Arizona Cannabis Bar Association.  He can be reached at


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