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updated 12/28/2011 8:38:05 PM ET 2011-12-29T01:38:05

Colorado has become the third state to ask the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to reclassify marijuana in a way that allows doctors to prescribe it as a medical treatment.

The state asked the Drug Enforcement Administration to reclassify marijuana from Schedule 1, a category that includes heroin, to Schedule 2. The change would allow doctors to prescribe pot and pharmacies to fill marijuana prescriptions.

The governors of Rhode Island and Washington have made similar requests. The letter came from the head of Colorado's Department of Revenue, the agency that oversees the state's booming medical marijuana business.

"There is a lack of certainty necessary to provide safe access for patients with serious medical conditions," wrote Revenue Director Barbara Brohl in a letter sent Dec. 22. It wasn't released to the public until Wednesday because of the holiday.

Last month, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire and Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee sent similar letters to the DEA. They asked that the government list marijuana as a Schedule 2 drug, meaning it would remain a controlled substance but could be prescribed by doctors and dispensed by pharmacies.

Marijuana is currently classified as a Schedule 1 drug by the DEA, which means the drug is considered to be without medicinal value and is illegal in all circumstances.

Gregoire and Chafee have both blocked plans to license medical marijuana dispensaries, citing fears of federal interference. They complained in their letters that "the divergence in state and federal law creates a situation where there is no regulated and safe system to supply legitimate patients who may need medical cannabis."

Colorado's letter was required under a law passed in 2010 and signed into law by former Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter. That law, which set up exhaustive state regulation for the medical marijuana business, included a requirement that Colorado petition the DEA for reclassification by Jan. 1, 2012, "in recognition of the potential medicinal value of medical marijuana."

The drug's classification has prompted a confusing tangle of state and federal approaches. In 16 states and the District of Columbia, doctors can "recommend" but not "prescribe" pot. To get marijuana, patients in states that permit it have to grow their own or enlist a dispensary or special caregiver, instead of going to a regular pharmacy.

Medical marijuana advocates and even some public officials have argued that the medical marijuana industry is onerous to regulate and ripe for abuse, and that confusion could be solved if the drug were regulated and controlled like other drugs prone to abuse, such as prescription painkillers.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Medical marijuana field grows

  1. Closed captioning of: Medical marijuana field grows

    >>> personal relationship with the cannabis plant. for me, cannabis , it was love at first sight . i knew intuitively it wasn't an evil plant. it felt good. it felt right.

    >> illicit love, it's a beautiful thing. you can call steve d'angelo a modern day medicine man working in the perilous gray area between federal law and state law . he and many others are part of the growing medical marijuana industry which is estimated to be worth nearly $2 billion just this year. along with his brother steve , he runs harborside health center in oakland. 94,000 registered patients this this business. they are the largest legal retailer of cannabis on the planet, and they are the subject of a controversial new reality show . joining us now, steve dang low, the executive director of the harborside health center and his brother andrew , harborside's general manager. they are two of the stars of discovery's newest shows, "weed wars," debuting tomorrow night at 10:00 p.m . what message do you hope to carry? why would you do this show? obviously it creates a little -- a little more risk potentially for you. more people looking at you. why do this?

    >> we think the american people deserve to see for themselves the world of medical cannabis , and i've always believed that if they had an opportunity to see my staff, our patients and how we handle the medicine that we would support what we're doing.

    >> there's a perception that this is a recreational drug that is being -- that people are trying to pass off as a medical thing and that that raises a certain amount of skepticism among a lot of folks. they say, listen, marijuana is a recreational drug . it is not a medical thing. how do you respond to that?

    >> well, i think when the audience tunes in to "we'd wars" on discovery channel , they are going to see a completely different impression. they are going to see people that are really sick. you can go on the discovery website right now and meet a couple dozen of our patients that are very, very sick and need this medicine. i've got glaucoma. i'm going to go blind, so there are legitimate medical needs and people are just -- one of the reasons we did this show is to break that stigma.

    >> go ahead.

    >> yeah, exactly. you know, the reason that we did that show was to let americans see for themselves who are the people that are using medical cannabis and what are they using it for, and we invited discovery to come in and embed with us for a full year. they had an opportunity to film all of our patients, and you'll see a really great cross-section of exactly who is using cannabis , the reasons they are using it and what it does for them.

    >> am i being presumptuous in suggesting that you guys would be in favor of legalization?

    >> yes, you would. you know, i don't believe that any psychoactive substance should be used for recreation. if you want recreation, read a book, take a walk, play a game of basketball. i do believe that adult americans should be able to use cannabis for health and wellness purposes though.

    >> so you would -- you think that the recreational -- the legalization of marijuana as a recreational drug is a very different debate than the use of marijuana as a medicine for specific treatment, is that correct?

    >> absolutely.

    >> and your goal is to draw the distinction between those who are suffering in the prohibition of recreational use that is preventing them from gaining legitimate access to the medicinal use.

    >> exactly.

    >> do i have it?

    >> we couldn't have said it better ourselves.

    >> i want to show everybody a little bit more of the show. take a look at this.

    >> california law says that there's a medical reason that people use marijuana. federal law says that marijuana is illegal at all times for all purposes. that's the conflict. federal law , as any first year law student knows, is supreme over state law . anybody that owns a commercial marijuana store in california would be the subject of a federal search warrant at any moment.

    >> what -- what ultimately -- in other words, are you trying to humanize this? what is it that you're trying to show?

    >> we're trying to show people that cannabis can be distributed to patients who legitimately need it in a way that brings benefits to communities and not harms. in addition to helping our 94,000 patients, we've also created 80 well-paying jobs in the city of observe land and another 40 in the city of san jose , and last year we generated over $3 million in tax revenue, and we're one of oakland's top ten taxpayers so the benefits flow through the whole community.

    >> at the same time, how hats current administration been under president obama relative to helping to make that distinction or either encouraging the distinction between medical marijuana and -- and non- medical marijuana ?

    >> well, you know, unfortunately, even though the president campaigned on a promise to respect state medical cannabis laws and even after shortly after taking office he issued a memo saying that they would respect that promise, shortly after several states actually implemented laws to regulate cannabis , the justice department changed their mind, and now is saying that they are going to try and close down licensed regulated distribution of medical cannabis .

    >> they have an all-out war on us right now. we have treasury department , the irs, the justice department , even atf is sending letters to gun dealers saying don't sell guns to medical marijuana patients who are the last people in the world who probably will buy a gun, you know.

    >> go ahead.

    >> but, you know, the question is why does the federal government think this is a good policy? 77% of americans support the right of patients to get access to medical cannabis . should they get it in a place that's licensed and regulated, that has laboratory tested medicine, like harborside, or should they go out on the street and get it from street dealers? which is better?

    >> here we are, new york city , one of the great cities of the world, and someone with glaucoma like me has nowhere to go for medical cannabis . they have to get it from the street or drug cartels .

    >> there's obviously different consortiums around this. one consists of a variety of former south american leaders along with richard branson and a few other folks who have been very aggressive in arguing that drug relationships in general between the state and people is a public health issue more than it is a criminal issue, that we have determined that drug utilization is a crime issue. we have a lot of people in prison around marijuana and we have a lot of people working inside law enforcement outside of our country to try to pursue it, and yet it is showing little or no basic result in terms of reducing consumption, if that is what the objective was. i'm not sure that that was the objective honestly, but if it was that it didn't work. on the flip side , efforts to control drug usage period has been much more effective when it's viewed as a public health issue with engagement in the communities and helping people find, again, alternate recreation in their lives, if you will, which is a public health issue just as sure as drug dependency is which might clear the space for this other conversation. do you get this sense outside the federal government that the people of this country are more prepared for that type of a conversation?

    >> well, that's why we're willing to take the risk that we're taking by doing this show, because we're confident that our fellow citizens, once they understand what it is that we're doing, are going to support us and stand up for us .

    >> like my brother said, 77% of americans in a recent cbs news poll supports safe access to medical cannabis . the federal government , once again, like in your previous two segments, is way behind, way behind the people, way behind.

    >> i mean, there's a conversation for another day just on the federal government 's ability in general to actually understand the intent and desire of the people. which goes to money and politics and a whole other -- i'll get you really worked up.

    >> there's no mystery about that, because in california 67% of the people voted in favor of prop 215 .

    >> which was what?

    >> that was california 's medical can that business initiative.

    >> okay.

    >> and in 16 other states either legislatures or the people through direct initiative have approved medical cannabis so there's no doubt about had you at least the citizens --

    >> the intention of that community?

    >> exactly.

    >> that's right. just today on the cover of the " usa today ," we learned that 16% of all veterans returning from war from ptsd. the v.a. is overwhelmed by them. they don't know what to do. harborside health center gives 15% discounts to v.a. veterans and medical cannabis has been report by the veterans to help them a lot with ptsd.

    >> in fact, one of the few agencies of the federal government that respects medical cannabis is the v.a. which in some cases allows veterans to use it in their hospitals.

    >> a pleasure to meet two of you. all the best with the show. i -- i certainly am with the 67%, if you can't tell, and i -- i suspect that the way it will push you further down the road, although what happens between here and there is anybody's guess. gentlemen, all the best

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