by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.
According to the Department of Justice, marijuana offenses account for 12.5% of all people in federal prisons for drug offenses. The FBI reports that 42.4% of all drug offense arrests are for possession of marijuana, which comes to about 620,000 people. Not only is marijuana illegal on the federal level, but it has historically been classified as a Schedule I drug, a designation that is supposed to mean that a substance is highly addictive and has no medical use.
With four states (CO, OR, WA, AK) permitting recreational marijuana and 25 states plus DC, Guam, and Puerto Rico enacting medical marijuana programs, the federal government recently re-examined its long-standing positions on marijuana. Under requests of two governors, the Drug Enforcement Agency was asked to look at rescheduling marijuana so that it is no longer a schedule 1 drug. Part of the reason is that marijuana can now legally (on the state level) be used as a health treatment in over half the country. New studies show medical benefits of marijuana including a RAND study that found a decrease in opioid use (abuse and related deaths) in states with medical marijuana programs.
Last week the DEA announced its findings: It denied the two petitions to reschedule marijuana, mainly on a lack of evidence of efficacy. The irony is that the reason there are few studies on efficacy is because marijuana is schedule I. To conduct a study on medical marijuana (apart from those that show it’s dangers) requires an institution to go through a long and drawn out approval process. Even if the various federal approvals are granted, there has only been one legal source of marijuana in the country—a farm at the University of Mississippi. With limited supplies, there is very little marijuana available for research use.
What is promising is that the DEA may be ending this catch-22: The agency also announced that it will accept applications for new suppliers of research grade marijuana. Theoretically, there should be more weed for more studies. The reality is that very few, if any, new licenses for growing will be granted. The proposal process states that “among the factors to be considered are whether the applicant has previous experience handling controlled substances in a lawful manner and whether the applicant has engaged in illegal activity involving controlled substances.” This means that you need to have previous experience with growing marijuana but unless you worked for the farm at Mississippi, all other growing has been illegal meaning you have been involved with illegal activity of controlled substances. The people with the most experience—legal growers in other states (who are still violating federal law)—will be excluded from applying. The end result is that the new statement is nothing more than words.
I will not restate the arguments both pro and con medical marijuana and recreational marijuana. I wrote on the history and politics of marijuana as a medicine two years ago (click here for that article). The marijuana debate is an enormous public policy issue. With a patchwork approach to legalization—from full recreational, to state control, to full illegality—there are several dozen experiments going on, none of them based on scientific evidence because the government more-or-less forbids such research by keeping “legal” marijuana unavailable. This debate is also a justice issue: If there is an effective medication for several conditions and for pain control, it is unjust to prohibit research that would allow it to be medically distributed.
The large number of people arrested and currently incarcerated for possession of marijuana in this patchwork of legality is also a source of social justice concern. Consider that minorities are much more likely than people perceived as “White” to be arrested and more likely to be imprisoned. Perhaps one of the concerns is that if marijuana was made more acceptable on the federal level, then all of the convictions and imprisonments for use of this drug would have to be revisited and vacated. How many lives have been destroyed over wrong-headed efforts to control this plant? The history of marijuana is one of racial and socioeconomic discrimination.
Another challenge is the confusion between state and federal laws. In some states use is permitted openly, in others just for medical, in others not at all. And the federal permissiveness is simply based on political will—if someone is elected to the White House or is appointed to the DOJ who is against a permissive approach, then the feds could shut down the state programs.
For all these reasons, the DEAs decision is a wrong one for the health of the public and for a furtherance of social justice. Marijuana should be reclassified and real money and plant material should be available for empirical research.