Pubdate: Sun, 2 Dec 2007
THE ARGUMENT TO REASSIGN POT'S DRUG CLASSIFICATION
The United States is a nation governed by law at the federal, state
and local levels. Sometimes these laws differ with each other. That's
where the great principle of federalism comes in. Federalism permits
state laws to be in conflict with each other, and even with the
federal government. But that's OK. The sometimes messy business of
federalism permits different locales to try different solutions to
vexing problems, allowing the states to act as the "test tubes of democracy."
We see federalism in action most vividly today surrounding the
controversy over medical marijuana. Ten states have either legalized
cannabis for medicinal use or permit a medical purpose defense
against prosecution. Their actions do not force other states to go along.
But federalism also means that the federal government can't be
compelled to accede to the state's laws, either, and indeed, when
federal and state laws conflict - as currently it does in states that
have legalized medical marijuana - both federal and state laws may
operate at the same time. Thus, the Supreme Court of the United
States has twice ruled that the federal government is entitled to
enforce its total ban against all marijuana possession and
consumption where such use is statutorily authorized.
And that's exactly what the Drug Enforcement Administration and
Department of Justice have done under Presidents Bill Clinton and
Bush. People using and distributing marijuana for medicinal use have
been prosecuted and convicted - even in states like California, where
it is legal. The upset caused by federal law enforcement actions has
made medical marijuana an issue in the current presidential campaign,
with candidates increasingly being asked by reporters and medical
marijuana activists whether they will promise to call off the DEA raids.
According to Granite Staters for Medical Marijuana (
www.granitestaters.com ), most of the Democrats, including Hillary
Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards, have promised to call off the
dogs. The leading Republican candidates, including Rudy Giuliani and
Mitt Romney, have refused to so pledge, worrying, as John McCain put
it in also rejecting the request, that marijuana is a "gateway drug."
(Fred Thompson did not answer the question.)
But this is both the wrong question and the wrong solution to the
controversy. The problem isn't the DEA raids. They are a symptom. The
real illness, if you will, is the Federal Controlled Substances Act,
passed in 1970, which explicitly lists marijuana as a "Schedule I"
drug. This means that under federal law, marijuana has a "high
potential for abuse" and "no accepted medical use in treatment in the
United States." Because marijuana is listed under Schedule I, doctors
may not legally prescribe it, and the federal government can ignore
state medical marijuana laws.
People can debate marijuana's potential for abuse, but it is
increasingly clear that cannabis has definite medicinal benefits.
Studies and abundant anecdotal evidence demonstrate that marijuana
can stimulate the appetites of people with AIDS and cancer, reduce
nausea in chemotherapy patients, and help people with such
debilitating conditions as multiple sclerosis, diabetes and glaucoma.
And the American people know it: Polls show support in the 70 percent
range for medical marijuana.
The good news is that just because marijuana is currently on Schedule
I, doesn't mean that it has to stay on Schedule I. The classification
can be changed in two ways: Either by the DEA - a highly unlikely
course - or by legislation. Indeed, Congress could pass a law
tomorrow listing marijuana under Schedule II of the controlled
substances law. This means that marijuana would still be considered a
drug with "a high potential for abuse" but one that also "has a
currently accepted medical use."
This would hardly be a radical move. It would merely allow doctors to
prescribe cannabis according to the same rules currently permitted
for far stronger and addicting drugs such as morphine, opium and
cocaine. Moreover, and here's a bitter irony, Marinol - the synthetic
version of marijuana (which many patients contend does not work as
well as the real McCoy), is listed as a Schedule III drug, meaning it
has less of a "potential for abuse" than drugs on Schedule I or II.
Given these facts and the high public support for marijuana as
medicine, one would think that the Democratic Congress would be
galloping to reclassify marijuana into either Schedule II or III. But
you can hear the crickets chirping: Even though most of the
Democratic presidential candidates are currently in the U.S. Senate
or House, there is no bill pending to reschedule marijuana. Moreover,
while there is discussion among medical marijuana supporters about
introducing a bill of some sort, past proposals have not attacked the
heart of the problem, which is the Schedule I classification.
To be sure, reclassifying marijuana would be resisted. But this isn't
because opponents are heartless. They worry that marijuana promoters
are cynically using the medicinal issue as a subterfuge for outright
legalization. This is undoubtedly true in some quarters, but so what?
If morphine and cocaine can be prescribed without being legalized as
an intoxicant, why can't marijuana?
Opponents are also concerned that legitimizing medical marijuana
would increase abuse. But it is the Schedule I listing that actually
forces medical marijuana to be distributed through a semi-anarchic
system in which doctors write notes, instead of properly regulated
prescriptions, and patients pick up their drug from pot "clubs"
instead of pharmacies.
This is a prescription for chaos. "None of us would have advocated
for the current model of distribution," Allen St. Pierre, the
executive director of the marijuana legalization advocacy group the
National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, told me. "The
government's actions have led to the law of unintended consequences:
People are literally getting cannabis for writer's block." The best
way to prevent such shadow legalization is to change the law and
thereby cut medical marijuana off from the broader advocacy movement.
This much is sure: Marijuana's Schedule I status breeds disrespect
for government, forces the DEA to waste resources raiding the homes
of sick people, leads to chaotic distribution schemes, and prevents
reasonable medical testing to see which maladies benefit - and which
do not - from marijuana use. Worse, the stigma of federal illegality
deters some sick people from seeking a drug that could help them feel better.
So the time has come to put the presidential candidates on the hot
seat. Merely asking whether they will halt the DEA raids allows them
to expediently wiggle past the real issue, and indeed, seeks a
promise from a future president to violate his or her oath of office
by pledging not to enforce valid federal law.
What we really need to know is whether the next president will remove
marijuana from Schedule I classification. That would help sick
people, remove the issue of medicinal use from the broader debate
over legalization, and bring the federal law in alignment with