Off schedule: DEA wrong to scrutinize drug


Published October 11, 2001

Salvia divinorum a controversial plant with hallucinogenic properties has been under scrutiny by the Drug Enforcement Agency for the past several months. The New York Times published an article in July concerning the recreational use of the plant. S. divinorum is a legal drug that can help researchers understand the human brain. Sadly the benefits of the plant may never be discovered if the DEA has its way. As in the past, it appears that the DEA will capitalize on media misconceptions to prohibit S. divinorum"s use. Instead of acknowledging and listening to the views of research scientists and psychologists, the DEA will make its own independent decision. The DEA"s past practices of placing psychedelics in Schedule I, the most "dangerous" classification for drugs, will likely place S. divinorum in Schedule I.

According to the DEA Schedule I drugs have no medical benefit, have a high potential for abuse and are unsafe even when used under medical supervision. Despite clearly not fulfilling these three conditions, the DEA has repeatedly placed many drugs in Schedule I, with the most egregious example being marijuana. The DEA, dominated by former members of the intelligence and military communities not medical professionals has in the past made scheduling decisions with little outside scrutiny.

The schedule assigned to a drug has a wide-range of effects throughout our society. Prison terms, the possibility of prescription and the ease with research on the chemical is conducted are all dictated by the DEA"s scheduling. Unfortunately, the DEA has often resorted to unscientific methods in the scheduling process.

Consider the case of MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy. In 1985, the DEA responded to reports of increased recreational use with emergency scheduling hearings. Citing a clear medical benefit and the ability to be used safely under medical supervision, Judge Francis Young recommended that MDMA be placed in Schedules II, though V. Young urged the government to conduct tests concerning the addictive properties of the chemical before the final scheduling was determined. These tests were never conducted and MDMA was placed in Schedule I.

The ramifications of this choice have been far-reaching. Important medical studies concerning MDMA"s ability to help victims of rape, sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder and cancer patients are forbidden in the U.S. Furthermore, the penalties for possession and distribution of MDMA are unjustly high, determined not by the unbiased view of a judge but the arbitrary, politically motivated choice of the DEA and legislators. But the most unfortunate consequence of the DEA"s hasty decision has been the stifling of research. The government has supported the studies of a few researchers who support the DEA"s opinion, while dissenting researchers have been ignored. Today we know very little about MDMA"s long-term effects on the human brain. The DEA"s case against MDMA weakens significantly when the DEA will not acknowledge any opposing evidence.

The DEA is now faced with a historic opportunity. S. divinorum can be scheduled according to irrational fears or through an open, public forum. The DEA must carefully consider the opinions of medical experts or risk distributing inadequate information.