Home News Not a token step on cannabis: Federal downgrading of drug is welcome

Not a token step on cannabis: Federal downgrading of drug is welcome



United States drug policy this week moved one step closer to sanity. It’s got much further to go.

We are not cannabis enthusiasts, nor do we love what legal and regulated substances like alcohol and tobacco do to human and public health. But dealing with those who sold and used pot through arrest, prosecution and occasional incarceration was cruel. It was wasteful. And it was terribly discriminatory — because while people of all backgrounds used marijuana, low-income Black and Brown people bore the brunt of criminal enforcement.

Nothing exemplified the stupidity of American cannabis policy more than the federal Drug Enforcement Agency’s scheduling system, which breaks substances into five categories “depending upon the drug’s acceptable medical use and the drug’s abuse or dependency potential.”

The feds put cannabis in Schedule I along with other serious narcotics “with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” like heroin and LSD. They maintained this classification even after 38 states home the vast majority of the U.S. population had laws allowing for marijuana to be prescribed by doctors.

That created a crazy disconnect whereby most states in the Union were breaking federal law — and scientists researching the effects of cannabis, good and bad, had to jump through hoops. Columbia’s Margaret Haney, a leading researcher on weed addiction, says it was easier years ago to study crack cocaine — because that was Schedule II.

She told Vital City, “I give people cannabis in the laboratory. So I get a set amount from a source approved for federally funded researchers; for many years there was only one such source. I put it in a gun safe in a locked refrigerator and safe in a door I get into with my fingerprint. When I give people an 800-milligram cannabis cigarette, I then take the butt and I save that for the DEA to someday take away.” 

Surprise, surprise, cannabis research has lagged behind where it should be.

The drug’s Schedule I status also has something to do with why it’s so hard for new legal cannabis markets to get up and running. New York’s embarrassing failure in this area has many fathers and mothers, but among them is the fact that, due to how tightly regulated weed is at the federal level, retail stores in the state that play by the rules could only stock wares that were grown in the state, which wasn’t immediately available and which generally cost more money. Black-market shops could put California weed on their shelves from Day One.

Better late than never, President Biden’s DEA is moving to reclassify marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III (“drugs with a moderate to low potential for physical and psychological dependence”). If and when that happens, following review by budget wonks and then the public, the feds will finally recognize cannabis’ medical uses. Recreational use will not be officially permitted yet, but Washington is clearly leaning in that direction.

Better than stumbling toward sanity, the Congress should pass — and the president should sign — legislation drafted by Sen. Chuck Schumer removing cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act entirely, as well as the SAFER Banking Act to let those in the weed business move money around. Now they are locked out of the national banking network.

We repeat: We don’t endorse cannabis use, and neither should government. Today’s high-potency pot is nothing to toy with. But with all but the most dangerous substances, regulation and taxation beat mindless prohibition and punishing enforcement.

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