By Craig Boudreau
Recent moves from some states to medicalize or legalize marijuana, coupled with the potential rescheduling of the drug by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), give positive signs that the century-long war on weed may be going up in smoke.
Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), spoke with The Daily Caller News Foundation about the trend towards legalization. NORML’s objective is to “move public opinion sufficiently to legalize and regulate the responsible use of marijuana by adults.”
“Public support for ending America’s nearly century-long experiment with marijuana prohibition and replacing it with a taxed and regulated adult marketplace has never been greater,” Armentano said. “The majority of Americans are aware that the ongoing enforcement of cannabis prohibition financially burdens taxpayers, encroaches upon civil liberties, engenders disrespect for the law, impedes legitimate scientific research into the plant’s therapeutic properties, and disproportionately impacts young people and communities of color.”
The District of Columbia along with 24 states already legalized marijuana for medical use, while Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington have fully legalized it for recreational use. A further seven states will be voting on either full legalization or medicalization in November. Oklahoma, Missouri, Montana, and North Dakota are currently trying to get enough signatures for the measure to appear on the ballot this November.
President Barack Obama has even said that if enough states decriminalize marijuana, Congress may be forced to act.
“At a certain point, if enough states end up decriminalizing, then Congress may then reschedule marijuana,” Obama said in an interview with Vice media co-founder Shane Smith, republished by The Huffington Post.
Armentano said his organization gets plenty of pushback from politicians. “Far too many elected officials at the state and federal level continue to deny the reality that public and scientific opinion are in direct conflict with marijuana criminalization,” Armentano told TheDCNF. “Elected officials from both political parties need to better recognize that advocating for marijuana law reform is a political opportunity, not a political liability.”
There are even groups of law enforcement who call for the legalization of marijuana. One such group is Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). According to their ‘about’ section, LEAP is a “nonprofit organization made up of current and former members of the law enforcement and criminal justice communities who are speaking out about the failures of our existing drug policies.”
LEAP claims that despite 40 years of the ‘war on drugs,’ drugs are now “cheaper, more potent and far more widely used than at the beginning of this futile crusade.”
Stephen Downing, a retired Los Angeles Police Department commander who actually helped Richard Nixon start the ‘war on drugs,’ said he now supports legalization because marijuana prohibition “absolutely” contributes to the kind of revenue gangs need to thrive.
Downing points to alcohol prohibition that effectively allowed the mob to gain a real foothold in this country in the 1920’s. Noting that once alcohol became illegal, competing interests battled for the ‘turf’ and mass violence ensued. Downing says the same is true for marijuana prohibition. Nevertheless, he told TheDCNF that marijuana legality should be a “state’s rights” issue, not a federal government one.
Contrary to the belief that legalization would result in smaller budgets, Downing counters that “it would free enormous amounts of law enforcement resources.” It would also allow for police to “go back to work looking after crimes against people and property,” and would allow them to fight “real crime.” He also said that it would help relieve an already overpopulated and overburdened criminal justice and prison system by taking non-violent offenders like marijuana users, out of the mix.
Downing also said the biggest impediment to legalization is law enforcement itself. The “culture of law enforcement” is what stands in the way, he said. “They refuse to look outside of the box, there is too much money going into their coffers.” Downing continued by saying “police unions fight legalization because it would mean less police are needed and therefore less police paying union dues.” He also alludes to the fact that police departments receive grants from the government for making drug arrest, and once that is taken off the table, less grant money will be coming departments way.
Up until the 1930’s, marijuana was legal in the U.S. and was available in many medicines of the day. But, with the Mexican Revolution of the early 1900’s — which saw an influx of Mexican immigrants leaving their native country for America — the U.S. saw an increase of marijuana use among their new countrymen and women. Drugpolicy.org says the move to criminalize marijuana was aimed at Mexican immigrants and gave law enforcement an “excuse to search, detain and deport Mexican immigrants.”
The drug was viewed as so nefarious that a propaganda film called ‘Reefer Madness‘ was made in 1938, which attempted to show that marijuana was a drug that induces psychosis. During hearings in the 1930’s about marijuana, claims were made that the plant made ‘men of color’ become ‘violent’ and would ‘solicit sex from white women’. These hearings, although based on unsubstantiated rhetoric, ultimately worked their intended purpose and the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was passed. The Act itself did not outright ban marijuana, but it did effectively ban the substance by making sellers and distributors jump through an endless series of federal hoops. Ultimately paving the way for the scheduling by the DEA in the 1970’s.
“Smoking of the drug produces such a condition of drugged stupor that the user often commits horrible crimes, not only on strangers but on members of his own family. Habitual users of the drug become completely unaccountable for their actions and often are maniacal in their deeds.” a 1938 Literary Digest article reads.
Gallup polling shows a marked change in the country’s views on marijuana since then. In 1970 only 12 percent supported legalization, as of October 2015 that number had spiked all the way up to a majority, 58 percent. Nearly a 500 percent increase.
Noting the changing mood of the country and scientific community, the DEA had said it was going to announce their decision about rescheduling marijuana in the first half of this year, but has since retracted that and said the agency is no longer “holding ourselves to any artificial time frame,” according to a recent Denver Post article.
Currently classified as a Schedule I drug, marijuana, as defined by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), has ‘no currently accepted medical use’. But, plenty of medical professionals disagree with that notion.
The U.S. Senate recently held a hearing where medical professionals from varying fields were asked their thoughts on marijuana’s medical benefits.
“There is a growing body of research suggesting the potential therapeutic value of cannabinoids (a chemical compound in marijuana) in numerous health conditions,” Dr. Susan Weiss of the National Institute of Health told the Senate committee. “Studies have suggested potentially valuable therapeutic effects of marijuana or its components in several cases.”
Dr. Daniele Piomelli, professor of Anatomy and Neurobiology at the University of California, Irvine, also sees medical potential from the plant. “While important questions remain, it is nevertheless clear that the medical potential of marijuana, along with its risks, can no longer be ignored.”
Likewise, Dr. Stuart Gitlow, founder and executive director at the Annenberg Physician Training Program in Addictive Disease, agrees about the benefits of marijuana as medicine. Despite having some harsh words during his testimony, Gitlow still says marijuana has a role in the medical community. “Marijuana has the potential to be abused, but its components also have medical potential.”
To that end, Armentano believes the listing as Schedule I is a farce. “Classifying cannabis as a Schedule I substance is a Flat Earth position and is woefully out of step with public and scientific consensus.”
Armentano also says any potential rescheduling of the drug would not be good enough. “Reclassifying cannabis from I to II (or even to schedule III) continues to misrepresent the plant’s safety relative to other controlled substances such as methamphetamine (schedule II), anabolic steroids (schedule III), or alcohol (unscheduled), and fails to provide states with the ability to regulate it free from federal interference.”
He goes on to say that scheduling of the plant stands in the way of much-needed clinical trials and says the only way to change that is not through rescheduling, but descheduling the drug altogether.
“These goals can only be accomplished by federally descheduling cannabis in a manner similar to alcohol and tobacco, thus providing states the power to establish their own marijuana policies free from federal intrusion.”
The Democratic party has picked up on this trend and recently voted to move forward with a ‘reasoned pathway to future legalization.’ Even the Republican base, for the first time ever, supports legalization on a majority basis. YouGov.com reports that Republican voters favor legalization 45 percent to 42 percent.
In closing, Downing notes that in his more than 20 years on the force, he never once responded to a call of domestic violence due to marijuana use. “I never saw marijuana as a source of any dispute or domestic abuse. It was always alcohol related.”