In the eyes of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), not all weed is created equal.
When its grown and used in its natural plant form, marijuana is an illegal and highly addictive drug with no accepted medical value, according to the agency. But when a pharmaceutical company develops a synthetic marijuana product, the DEA is more open-minded.
Last week, the DEA approved Syndros, an oral solution that contains a synthetic version of THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis. That caught the attention of marijuana reform advocates because the drug company behind Syndros, Insys Therapeutics, contributed $500,000 to a committee that last year opposed marijuana legalization in Arizona.
Insys did not respond to a request for comment.
The approval of Syndros has also raised questions about the DEA's standards for classifying drugs under federal law. Syndros earned a Schedule 2 classification, which is significantly less restrictive than marijuana's Schedule 1 classification. The key difference between the two schedules concerns each drug's medical value and potential for abuse, factors that are determined by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The FDA approved Syndros on July 1, according to a press release from Insys. The agency claimed the synthetic marijuana product effectively treated nausea and vomiting among chemotherapy patients, and also treated weight loss associated with AIDS.
As for its potential for abuse, the DEA noted that Syndros "is similar to that of other THC containing products such as concentrates, infused edibles, and drinks" and "can be easily manipulated to other forms that can be easily abused through inhalation and oral routes of administration."
DEA spokesperson Melvin Patterson confirmed in an interview with ATTN: that Syndros was granted a more lenient schedule because the FDA had determined the synthetic product had medical value, whereas the agency has denied marijuana's therapeutic benefits. That's in spite of numerous studies finding ample evidence that natural marijuana treats the same conditions as Syndros — nausea, vomiting, and weight loss.
The DEA appears to be shifting responsibility to the FDA — despite the fact the FDA has itself raised concerns over the DEA’s scheduling standards.
In September 2016, ATTN: obtained letters from the FDA through a public records request in which the agency advised the DEA to reevaluate its scheduling system, citing the difficulty of establishing marijuana's medical value under the current "legal and regulatory framework."
"It's clearly absurd that DEA would approve Big Pharma's marijuana product while keeping Mother Nature's original version in Schedule I," Marijuana Majority founder Tom Angell told ATTN:.