The last two weeks have been full of announcements from the federal government about marijuana policy. None of them has been positive, and none of them should be surprising.
First, the Department of Justice stated that it retained the ability to prosecute anyone who cultivates, processes, or distributes medical marijuana, regardless of state law. As noted earlier on this blog, this is not really a change in policy, but it is certainly disappointing to see the Department of Justice is unwilling to publicly recognize the legitimacy of state medical marijuana laws and would rather have patients purchasing their medicine from dangerous, illicit dealers.
Then, in a move that shouldn’t have surprised anyone, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the agency tasked with determining the legal status of drugs according to the Controlled Substances Act, decided to keep marijuana as a Schedule I substance. This classification means that the DEA will continue to assert that marijuana has no accepted medical use and should continue to be a high enforcement priority. Never mind the growing mountain of peer-reviewed studies that show the medical efficacy and relative safety of marijuana. The DEA will only pay attention to government studies, which are not approved unless the goal is to find negative effects, not medical benefits. We should not expect them to reschedule marijuana in the foreseeable future, especially since marijuana enforcement is an easy source of cash and prestige. Americans for Safe Access is currently appealing the decision in federal court, however, and hopefully they will gain some traction on this point and force the DEA to recognize the evidence in support of medical marijuana.
All this was followed by the release of the National Drug Control Strategy, which basically states that the Obama administration will continue to use scarce resources to combat the use of marijuana through criminal justice means, as well as a slightly increased program of harm reduction (which the President has said was going to be his primary focus). The strategy admits that marijuana use is at its highest in the last eight years, yet wants to continue the same strategy it has been utilizing during that same period!
The new strategy also mentions medical marijuana and, while admitting that there may be some medical uses for individual components of marijuana, continues to say that it should pass through the FDA approval process. This would be nice, if we could get all the federal agencies whose stamps of approval are needed to actually allow such research. So far the efforts of those trying to go through the official research and approval process have been blocked. In addition, the new strategy claims that medical marijuana “sends the wrong message to children” and increases the likelihood of adolescents using marijuana. This point ignores the fact that in most medical marijuana states, teen use has actually decreased since passing medical marijuana laws. Data supporting this can be found in the Marijuana Policy Project’s Teen Use Report.
So what does all this mean?
It means that all we can expect from the federal government is support of the status quo. We might get some minor concessions here and there, and the fact that the Ogden Memo has been (mostly) followed by the DOJ should not be overlooked. However, we should not look to the federal government to change policy in any drastic way simply of its own free will. They must be legally compelled to do so.
This is why we don’t need statements of policy, nice as they may be. We need different laws. We need something much more binding than policy statements, which can be distorted and rescinded at any moment without legal backing. It is imperative that we convince our legislators to support bills that will weaken the federal government’s control over marijuana policy and enforcement.
Please contact your representative in Congress, and tell them to support H.R. 2306. This bill would remove the federal government’s ability to interfere with state marijuana laws and policies. Legal change is what we really need if we want to see positive change in federal behavior.