Last week, the news came down from on high: President Obama was about to do something big on marijuana. Pot, as you may recall from an annoying rant in a nondescript dorm room while someone—we’re not saying you—was using the stuff, is officially a Schedule I controlled substance. Marijuana advocates were hoping that was about to change, but instead, in a roundabout policy switch, researchers will be allowed to apply to grow their own marijuana crops.
So, despite many studies suggesting otherwise, the FDA and DEA still define marijuana as having “no known medical value,” retaining its current classification, the same as heroin, LSD, and psychedelic mushrooms. Odd, considering that 25 states have approved the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes, while four more (Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, plus Washington D.C.) have made it totally legal. A record 61 percent of Americans are in favor of outright legalization (specify medicinal use and the percentage shoots up to 88), so for the Obama administration, declassification of marijuana seemed to many like a no-brainer.
Removing the barrier to research is definitely a crucial move, though, and it should lead to a knowledge boom across universities that have had to depend on crops from the University of Mississippi, the lone institution accredited to grow research plants. Sure, this is a baby step where a giant leap would be rewarded, but a step nonetheless—one of many on the way to federal legalization. If you’re in any way invested in the decriminalization of cannabis, here’s why the administration’s latest stance should matter to you.
Why does classification matter?
For the federal government, a drug’s classification guides both policy and availability. As long as marijuana remains a Schedule 1 controlled substance, the DEA will continue to severely limit marijuana access for research purposes, while Schedule II drugs (the painkiller oxycodone, for example) are able to be produced in private laboratories to meet demand with less regulation. This means that marijuana, despite being used by 33 million people in the U.S. last year (that’s only seven million less than cigarettes), is still considered “highly addictive” and without health benefits, while drugs like cocaine, meth, Adderall, and Vicodin are more widely and easily tested because of their medical uses.
More research is always good. Not that more research is needed in this case. We already have a ton of studies showing marijuana has medical value.
For Tom Angell, the chairman for Marijuana Majority, a pro-legalization advocacy group with bipartisan support, the decision to remove barriers to research is a move in the right direction—yet still out of step with where the medical establishment has been for years. “More research is always good,” he said. “Not that more research is needed in this case. We already have a ton of studies showing marijuana has medical value, not to mention the voices of patients and doctors who have seen and felt those effects.”
But haven’t the Obama years been building up to weed legalization in unprecedented ways?
This is undoubtedly true, but not from a federal angle. Obama has been disinterested in giving marijuana policy a role in his presidency, yet his administration’s passivity (particularly during his second term) has given states the room to implement and experiment with both medical and recreational legalization programs. It’s crazy to recall, but marijuana wasn’t fully legal anywhere when Obama took office. Yet if initiatives set to appear on November’s ballot end up passing, marijuana will be available without medical prerequisites in a fifth of American states.
He is the best president ever on marijuana policy. But that’s an extremely low bar.
“He is the best president ever on marijuana policy,” said Angell. “But that’s an extremely low bar. There haven’t really been any great marijuana policy presidents in the past. In his first term, his administration oversaw the shuttering of more legal marijuana businesses than happened in two terms of the Bush administration. But in the second term, since states started legalizing marijuana outright, the administration has actually provided a lot of leeway to states to go ahead and implement their own laws, largely but not entirely without federal interference. And that, in a lot of ways, has given us opportunities to show that world that legalization works, and it does what we’ve been saying it would do for years and decades.”
So, come this November…
Marijuana legalization will appear on ballots in nine states during the 2016 election. Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada will vote on full legalization. If the initiative passes in California, that would make weed legal on the entire west coast—another potential tipping point that, in concert with more research, could push the federal government toward full decriminalization.
Four more states—Arkansas, Florida, Montana, and North Dakota—will vote on medicinal legalization. Florida and Arkansas would be the first southern states to adopt medical marijuana programs.
And what of the 2016 presidential candidates? Is it possible I agree more with Obama than Trump on this?
No surprise, but it’s hard to gauge what exactly Donald Trump believes when it comes to marijuana. Most consistently, the erratic Republican candidate has maintained that marijuana should remain a state issue. “I think medical should happen—right?” he told the Washington Post last fall. “Don’t we agree? I think so. And then I really believe we should leave it up to the states.”
As president, Hillary will build on the important steps announced today by rescheduling marijuana from a Schedule I to a Schedule II substance.
Clinton, for her part, has committed to pushing forward where Obama has been hesitant. In a move that will surely appeal to millennial voters (82 percentof whom support full legalization), Clinton has vowed to declassify marijuana to a Schedule II substance after she enters office.
Responding to the easing of research restrictions last week, Maya Harris, a Clinton senior policy advisor, said the Clinton administration will keep moving the ball forward. “As president, Hillary will build on the important steps announced today by rescheduling marijuana from a Schedule I to a Schedule II substance,” she said in a statement. “She will also ensure Colorado, and other states that have enacted marijuana laws, can continue to serve as laboratories of democracy.”
So, if everyone is using it anyway, why does marijuana’s legality and classification really matter?
Plenty of people—roughly 750,000 per year—still go to jail for marijuana. Arrests for weed possession make up roughly half of the total drug arrests in America, and minorities, particularly African-Americans, are nearly four times more likely to end up behind bars due to marijuana possession. These arrests continue because, through fines and citations, they make money for cities and states. Few culminate in convictions; lots earn revenue from tickets. There are 40,000 inmates currently in federal and state custody for convictions involving marijuana, yet less than one percent of those are in prison because of possession.
When it comes to marijuana policy, the divergent goals of law enforcement, the medical establishment, state and federal governments, and the American public have resulted in a messy country-wide experiment. Legalization in states like Colorado and Washington have been a massive success thus far, yet doctors and research scientists are just now able to apply for permission to grow their own crops.
The biggest evolution on the marijuana front during the Obama era seems to be in philosophy. For the public, a minority supporting legalization has become a resounding majority. Taboos have melted away. For the president, an issue once based purely on ideology has shifted to a scientific one. And while it’s debatable whether the science “is in” or not (according to the federal government, at least), openness to studying and analyzing data—both coming from labs and our communities experimenting with legalization structures—will be how America deals with the drug going forward.
That openness will eventually lead to the freedom of choice when it comes to marijuana.