The governors of Washington and Rhode Island petitioned the federal government on Wednesday to reclassify marijuana as a drug with accepted medical uses, saying the change is needed so states like theirs, which have decriminalized marijuana for medical purposes, can regulate the safe distribution of the drug without risking federal prosecution.
The move by the governors —Christine Gregoire of Washington, a Democrat, and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, an independent who used to be a Republican — injected new political muscle into the long-running debate on the status of marijuana. Their states are among the 16 that now allow medical marijuana, but which have seen efforts to grow and distribute the drug targeted by federal prosecutors.
“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,” the governors wrote Wednesday to Michele M. Leonhart, the administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Marijuana is currently classified by the federal government as a Schedule I controlled substance, the same category as heroin and L.S.D. Drugs with that classification, the government says, have a high potential for abuse and “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.”
The governors want marijuana reclassified as a Schedule II controlled substance, which would put it in the same category as drugs like cocaine, opium and morphine. The federal government says that those drugs have a strong potential for abuse and addiction, but that they also have “some accepted medical use and may be prescribed, administered or dispensed for medical use.”
Such a classification could pave the way for pharmacies to dispense marijuana, in addition to the marijuana dispensaries that operate in a murky legal zone in many states.
“What we have out here on the ground is chaos,” Governor Gregoire said in an interview. “And in the midst of all the chaos we have patients who really either feel like they’re criminals or may be engaged in some criminal activity, and really are legitimate patients who want medicinal marijuana.
“If our people really want medicinal marijuana, then we need to do it right, we need to do it with safety, we need to do it with health in mind, and that’s best done in a process that we know works in this country — and that’s through a pharmacist.”
The State of Washington approved medical marijuana in 1998, with a ballot question that won 60 percent of the vote. But like many states, Washington soon found itself in a legal gray area. The Legislature tried to clarify things last spring, when it passed a bill to legalize and regulate marijuana dispensaries and growers.
But the Justice Department warned that growing and distributing marijuana was still against federal law, and said that “state employees who conducted activities mandated by the Washington legislative proposals would not be immune from liability.” Ms. Gregoire, while sympathetic to the goals of the bill, wound up vetoing much of it.
It was similar on the other side of the country, where Rhode Island passed a law authorizing state-regulated marijuana dispensaries. This fall Governor Chafee said he could not go ahead with the plan because federal prosecutors had warned him that dispensaries could be targets of prosecution.
Advocates for medical marijuana praised the move on Wednesday, but said the governors should not wait for the federal government before going forward with state initiatives. Opponents said that even if marijuana was reclassified, it was unlikely that pharmacies would be able to dispense it, because the drug is usually smoked and comes in varied strengths.
As recently as June the D.E.A. denied a petition to reclassify marijuana, based on a review conducted several years earlier. But Ms. Gregoire and Mr. Chafee said the attitude of the medical community had changed since the government last reviewed the issue.
In 2009 the American Medical Association changed its position and called for reviewing the classification of marijuana, saying that the current classification was limiting clinical research.
Ms. Gregoire noted that many doctors believe it makes no sense to place marijuana in a more restricted category than opium and morphine. “People die from overdose of opiates,” she said. “Has anybody died from marijuana?”