The DEA’s Use of Bad Science to Discredit Medical Cannabis

The DEA's hidden agenda

When science is used for political purposes it results in some very distorted and dangerous results that serve a specific point of view at the expense of the rigorous standards mandated by the scientific method.

History has numerous examples of scientists who have twisted, concealed or fabricated scientific studies to promote an industry or political point of view.

This has occurred in the oil, tobacco, insecticide, pollution industries when scientists, universities and industry-sponsored research labs produced politically-tainted studies termed as “scientific.”

Now, it is being used by senior officials of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to discredit and marginalize scientifically valid experiments about the positive benefits of cannabis to treat a variety of serious conditions, such as muscle spasms in multiple sclerosis, Tourette syndrome, chronic pain, nausea and vomiting in HIV/AIDS and cancer chemotherapy, loss of appetite from cancer, hyperactivity of the bladder in patients with multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injury, and dyskinesia caused by levodopa in Parkinson’s disease epilepsy, cancer, and PTSD.

So despite these positive indications, why would a federal agency intentionally seek to disregard and discredit volumes of medical and scientific research?

The answer has to do with more with bureaucratic self-preservation and power-grabbing than with serving its mandate, “… the long-term immobilization of major drug trafficking organizations through the removal of their leaders, termination of their trafficking networks and seizure of their assets.”

While the DEA does make major arrests and confiscates tons of hard drugs, like other bureaucracies, it also has a self-serving agenda to perpetuate elements of the drug trade and create false issues that boost its importance and operational budget.

Born Under a Bad Sign

Founded in 1973, the DEA was created by President Richard Nixon to harass blacks and hippies as part of his 1971 categorization of marijuana as a Schedule 1 narcotic.  In a surprising interview with John Ehrlichman in Harpers (April 2016 issue) with author Dan Baum, the former counsel and Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs in the Nixon White House admitted that the real cause for the war on drugs had a much more sinister intent: to crush political dissent.

“You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

The war on drugs escalated under Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush who militarized drug enforcement. Under Bush, a former head of the CIA (1976-1977),

George Bush at the CIA
George Bush at the CIA

nearly 40,000 paramilitary-style SWAT raids were being conducted each year on Americans. Many of those were for nonviolent, misdemeanor drug offenses,” according to the Drug Policy Alliance.”

As the nation’s drug enforcement agency, the DEA has a clear financial interest in getting funding by investigating and prosecuting cannabis crimes.  The science is irrelevant to them,” according to Michael Minardi, an attorney in Jupiter, Florida, who is a lifetime member to the NORML Legal Committee. “They ignored the science even after Francis Young, their own DEA Administrative Law Judge, ruled in 1988 that cannabis should be rescheduled. In her comments, Young said “marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man.”

While federal research into cannabis has been intentionally made very difficult to do for decades, the DEA did allow one study, by the National Institute of Drug Administration, that only researched the detrimental effects of cannabis.

Take the case of the DEA’s foray into stopping narco-terrorism.  In a detailed article, “Trafficking in Terror,” by Ginger Thompson in the New Yorker (Dec. 14, 2015), Thompson writes that the DEA paid informants hundreds of thousands of dollars worldwide to lure them into smuggling drugs to buttress the DEA’s case that narco-terrorism even existed on a large scale.

Operating under the provision of the Patriot Act passed in 2006, the D.E.A. has pursued dozens of cases that fit the broad description of crimes under the statute, which targets violent criminals with one hand in terrorism and the other in the drug trade.  But as Thompson writes, “The agency has claimed victories against Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Taliban, and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and established the figure of the narco-terrorist as a preëminent threat to the United States.”

But she noted that in recent years, the D.E.A. has substantially increased its funding for international operations even though the narco-terrorists whom the D.E.A. pursued found that many cases they brought to court, relied heavily on sting operations set up by D.E.A. informants, who were paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to lure the suspects into participating in illegal activity.

“The D.E.A. strongly defends the effectiveness of such sting operations, claiming that they are a useful way to identify criminals who pose a threat to the United States before they act,” Thompson wrote.

But security experts do not agree whether the criminal connections that the D.E.A. says are a threat are real. For instance, Thompson said ISIS is funded by oil revenues, taxes, and extortion, but not by drug trafficking. According to the New Yorker magazine, Russell Hanks, a former senior American diplomat, who got a firsthand look at some of the D.E.A.’s narco-terrorism targets while serving in West Africa, told Thompson, “The D.E.A. provided everything these men needed to commit a crime, then said, ‘Wow, look what they did.’ ”

He continues, “This wasn’t terrorism—this was the manipulation of weak-minded people, in weak countries, in order to pad arrest records.” Thompson takes an in-depth look at the case against three Malian smugglers, who were arrested after a sting operation and accused of aiding Al Qaeda. The U.S. government eventually dropped the narco- terrorism charge, and the judge in the case stated that she didn’t believe the men were involved with Al Qaeda.

In another instance, I interviewed a former DEA agent who was stationed in Thailand, a major source of heroin importation.  As part of his DEA responsibilities, he also had access to a CIA office located in the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok where mail being sent to certain U.S. officials in was routinely opened and read.

In one instance, he said the CIA officer showed him a letter that was received from the leader of one of the major Chinese gangs in Thailand who processed heroin for export to the U.S.  In the letter, the Chinese gang leader asked for U.S. funding to turn his opium-heroin operation into a farming operation.  In short, he wanted to get out of the drug business. The CIA officer showed the letter to the DEA agent and threw it into the trash. When asked why he did not pursue the request, the CIA officer said “it would be bad for business.”

Bad Science Used for Political Gain

Since the pursuit of narco-terrorism yielded few hard results, the DEA has pushed ahead on using bad science to discredit the valid medical research in support of cannabis.  The DEA adopted this tactic since it has been used successfully before by powerful corporate and government interests to derail and delay other public health-related issues from closer scrutiny.

One example is the recent discovery of research papers from 1946 that discussed the dangers of air pollution.  According to Common Dreams, “Industry executives met in Los Angeles in 1946 to discuss growing public concern about air pollution. That meeting led to the formation of a panel—suitably named the Smoke and Fumes Committee—to conduct research into air pollution issues.

But the research was not meant to be a public service; rather, it was used by the committee to “promote public skepticism of environmental science and environmental regulations the industry considered hasty, costly, and potentially unnecessary,” according to the Center for International Environmental Law.

Common Dreams also found that “documents also show how Humble Oil (now ExxonMobil) scientists actively engaged on climate science in the company’s name beginning in the 1950s, even as they actively funded and published research into alternate theories of global warming.”

Due to its global nature, environmental science has become so highly partisianed that the Executive Secretary of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change said “the science has driven the politics…if the science is to continue to guiding the politics, it is essential to keep the politics out of the science.” (Cited from “Critical Political Ecology” The Politics of Environmental Science,” Tim Forsyth, Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2003). That may sound ideal since scientific explanations and solutions have increasingly become more enmeshed in everyday social and political actions.

Similar studies used to distort hard science were also conducted by the lead and tobacco industry as early as the 1970s and 1953, respectively.  The tobacco industry cover-up has been called the “crime of the century” because of its global scope and the number of people affected. In a federal case, United States of America vs. Philip Morris, Inc., et al.,  filed in the US District Court for the District of Columbia, of tobacco industry defendants were charged with “engaging in a criminal conspiracy that sought to cover up the dangers of smoking; mislead the public on the dangers of secondhand smoke; cover up the addictiveness of nicotine; deceptively market ‘light’ cigarettes as less harmful than regular cigarettes; deliberately target young people to recruit new smokers; and deliberately refrain from producing safer, less addictive cigarettes.”

The reason for the conspiracy? Money. “The companies allegedly conspired “to preserve and expand the market for cigarettes and to maximize the cigarette companies’ profits.”

The tobacco conspiracy was traced to a December 1953 meeting at the Plaza Hotel in New York, where the executives planned a coordinated industry response to recent studies documenting the health hazards of smoking, including lung cancer. In January 1954, the companies issued a joint statement, published in newspapers across the country that sought “to discredit scientific studies that connected smoking to various health risks.” The government said the tobacco industry “continued to pursue a policy of deliberate deception for decades, despite mounting evidence of the dangers of smoking.”  If that sounds familiar, it is because the deceptions and delays worked.

As a result, the tobacco companies got away with murder for 41 years. Finally, in a famous series of 1994 hearing, led by Congressman Harry Waxman (D-Cal.), the CEOs of the four major tobacco companies were subpoenaed to testify about the cover-up and lies of the tobacco industry. The top CEOs from RJ Reynolds, Phillip Morris, Brown & Williamson and Lollilard all adamantly refused to vary from their prepared stories that they knew cigarettes were addictive and were killing people. “They all four claimed they did not believe this.”

A related, but more insidious example of perverted science emanates from eugenics, “a notorious branch of pseudo-science,” that led to forces cases of sterilization by state officials, restrictions on immigration, and marriage laws. Eugenics was taught in schools and churches and became popular in American culture in the 1920s and 1930s. The problem was that it was based on illogical research citing the coat color of guinea pigs, trying to link mental and behavioral traits that were not scientifically defined or simplifying complex human traits, such as intelligence, as emanating from a single source.

Eugenics attracted a following among Americans seeking a way to bar immigrants. It was later adopted in Europe as a justification for ideologies, including by the Nazis, as related to a “science” that could determine “racial purity.”

Neocon’s at the DEA and the CIA

The DEA’s self-serving use of bad science and self-serving agendas, such as “narco-terrorism” were preceded by similar bureaucratic-perpetuating strategies at the CIA. Writing in “How The American Neoconservatives Destroyed Mankind’s Hopes For Peace,” Paul Craig Roberts, Reagan appointee, said “The military/security complex, the CIA, and the neocons were very much against ending the Cold War as their budgets, power, and ideology were threatened by the prospect of peace between the two nuclear superpowers.

According to Roberts, “the secret committee was authorized by President Reagan to evaluate the CIA’s claim that the Soviets would prevail in an arms race. The secret committee concluded that this was the CIA’s way of perpetuating the Cold War and the CIA’s importance.” (Cited from Thom Hartmann blog.)

Decades later, we can substitute the DEA’s self-serving strategy for what the CIA threatened under Reagan. But since the DEA’s threat of narco-terrorism failed to materialize, it devised and perpetuated another myth: cannabis has no medical value.

The DEA’s Bad Science  

Like the tobacco, oil, and chemical industries that have misused science to promote their own agendas, the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration has chosen to ignore and distort a large body of international scientific evidence, including at least 100 academic and scientific reports and studies, that support the beneficial medical effects of cannabanoids, an essential molecule found in cannabis.

This includes studies that clearly state cannabis does not belong as a schedule 1 substance, including the 1999 Institute of Medicine Report that said “except for the harm associated with smoking, the adverse effects of marijuana use are within the range tolerated for other medications. Thus, the safety issues associated with marijuana do not preclude some medical uses.”

However, this statement (“within the range tolerated for other medications”) has an important difference from actual experience. “The problem is that almost all F.D.A.-approved drugs have been the primary cause of non-naturally caused deaths in the U.S., plus the report failed to address the fact that tobacco kills over 400,000 people per year,” according to attorney Michael Minardi.

In November 2015, the DEA’s acting chief Chuck Rosenberg, stated that

Chuck Rosenberg, DEA chief
Chuck Rosenberg, DEA chief

there is no credible scientific evidence that shows that cannabis has any positive medical benefits despite the fact that “several studies have found smoked marijuana has medical benefits and mostly mild side effects,” according to  The same site also quoted from an article by JAMA  (the Journal of the American Medical Association) that “at least some such evidence does exist that there was moderate-quality evidence to suggest that cannabinoids may be beneficial for the treatment of chronic neuropathic or cancer pain (smoked THC and nabiximols).” Nabiximols is a cannabis extract delivered as a mouth spray.”

According to Time, DEA chief Chuck Rosenberg said the idea that marijuana can be used as medicine is a “joke.”

“What really bothers me is the notion that marijuana is also medicinal — because it’s not,” Rosenberg said. “We can have an intellectually honest debate about whether we should legalize something that is bad and dangerous, but don’t call it medicine —that is a joke.”

Rosenberg’s comments immediately drew criticism from some Democrats who asked for his resignation. The Obama Administration remained silent on this matter, but it has loosened restrictions on cannabis research, even if it is long overdue.

In the interim, the medical evidence from global research has continued to mount that cannabanoids can reduce the negative impacts of asthma, nausea associated with cancer, HIV-associated sensory neuropathy, PTSD symptoms, epilepsy and eating and sleeping disorders.

The DEA’s Real Motive

“How then is it really about our safety versus their lust for money when cannabis has not been the primary cause of death in one person in over 5000 thousand years of use.  I also ask this question, if Cannabis was so harmful to someone’s health, why would the pharmaceutical companies spend so much money lobbying against legalization, and why would they be developing cannabis based drugs, Sativex which is available in 39 countries but not the U.S.A., and Epidiolex.

When wide-ranging social changes face a society, it has a few choices: accept them or resist them. But if we accept that in modern society, as the sociologist J. Rundell writes, “modernity [has] became identified with the development of objective knowledge, that is, with the development of modern rationalist, scientific thinking,” than the results of the scientific process should be debated and not dismissed outright.

However, the sociologist Emile Durkheim found that organizations can transform their organizational cultures into organizational ideologies, where ideology is defined as “crafting of ideas and values for the purpose of advancing a specific agenda. “As long as such ideas and values are clearly identified with a ‘special cadre within a society, they will resist being absorbed into common sense,’ i.e., transformed into culture,” James R. Lincoln writes in the paper, Durkheim and Organizational Culture.

So maybe it is the DEA’s culture that refuses to be changed by valid scientific research. This means that the cannabis-DEA debate is an extension of the generations-long culture wars that still rage between traditionalist, conservative, progressive and liberal values.


Chuck Epstein is a freelance journalist who has written for over 50 publications. He has won national awards from the Mutual Fund Education Alliance (MFEA) and his web site,, was named best small blog in 2009 by the Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW).  He lives in Palm Beach, Florida.





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