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.