A Lassen County marijuana garden. File photo

Beginning of the end of cannabis prohibition

The federal government is moving toward “rescheduling” cannabis to recognize its medicinal use. That’s not far enough — but it’s a major step forward.

For the first time in its history, the Justice Department is calling for a change in the federal legal status of cannabis — which is currently classified as one of America’s most dangerous drugs.

The Attorney General’s office recently confirmed that it’s circulating a proposal to reclassify marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III under the federal Controlled Substances Act. The move, which affirms a prior recommendation by the Department of Health and Human Services and the FDA, marks an about-face for bureaucracies that have traditionally maintained a “flat earth” perspective for all things cannabis.

Under federal guidelines, Schedule I substances possess “no currently accepted medical use in the United States” and “lack accepted safety for use under medical supervision.” By contrast, Schedule III substances, like ketamine and anabolic steroids, are recognized as having well-established medical use  and an acceptable safety profile for patients.

The federal government’s decision to finally recognize cannabis as a legitimate therapeutic agent is historic.

For decades, federal officials maligned patients and doctors who spoke out about the benefits of cannabis. One former federal drug czar even accused physicians who supported medical marijuana of practicing “Cheech & Chong medicine.”

For years, the government actively campaigned against statewide medical cannabis legalization initiatives — and even went so far as to try and strip physicians of their medical licenses for daring to discuss cannabis therapy with the sick and dying.

Not anymore.

According to HHS, an estimated 30,000 health practitioners in the United States are currently authorizing medical marijuana for their patients. The department also acknowledged that “the vast majority of individuals who use marijuana are doing so in a manner that does not lead to dangerous outcomes to themselves or others.”

The government’s stunning reversal validates the experiences of tens of millions of Americans. But it still falls well short of the changes necessary to bring federal marijuana policy into the 21st century. Specifically, the proposed change fails to harmonize federal marijuana policy with the cannabis laws of most U.S. states, particularly the 24 states that have legalized its use and sale to adults.

These jurisdictions regulate marijuana in a manner far more akin to alcohol — a substance omitted from the Controlled Substances Act — than a prescription drug. As a result, the state-licensed adult-use cannabis industry — and those who patronize it — will continue to operate in legal limbo, without any clear guidance from the federal government.

Nevertheless, as a first step forward, this policy change dramatically shifts the political debate surrounding cannabis.

Specifically, it delegitimizes many of the tropes historically exploited by opponents of marijuana policy reform. Claims that cannabis poses unique harms to health, or that it’s not useful for treating chronic pain and other ailments, have now been rejected by the very federal agencies that formerly perpetuated them. Going forward, these specious allegations should be absent from any serious conversations surrounding cannabis and how to best regulate its use.

Of course, the longstanding politicization of cannabis won’t go away overnight. For decades, marijuana’s critics have derided both the plant and its consumers. Some will no doubt continue to try and do so despite the federal government’s decision to change course. But their claims will increasingly fall upon deaf ears.

After nearly a century of cannabis criminalization, prohibition is coming to an end.

About Paul Armentano|
Paul Armentano is the Deputy Director for NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. This op-ed was distributed by OtherWords.org