Cannabis, commonly known as marijuana, pot, reefer, and grass, is a preparation of the cannabis plant that is used as a psychoactive drug or medicine.
The earliest recorded uses date from the 3rd millennium BC. Despite its long history of use as a natural medicine, since the early 20th century cannabis has been subject to legal restrictions. Possession, use, and sale of cannabis preparations containing psychoactive cannabinoids are currently illegal in many parts of the world.
Despite the U.S. government’s prohibition of the plant, scientists have continued to study it, and people have continued to use it for both recreational and medicinal purposes.
So far, scientific study of cannabis has identified more than 80 unique, biologically active cannabinoids. A recent meta-analysis of these compounds shows well over a dozen therapeutic properties attributable to cannabinoids, including neuroprotective, anti-cancer, anti-bacterial, and anti-diabetic properties.
A review of several hundred papers assessing cannabis’s therapeutic properties is available on the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) website: Recent Research on Medical Marijuana
Support for marijuana use and medical marijuana continues to increase. More than half of Americans say it should be legal. Nearly 9 in 10 think doctors should be allowed to prescribe marijuana for patients.
This year alone there have already been more than 50 legislative initiatives around the country aimed at legalizing or decriminalizing medical or recreational marijuana.
States that currently allow marijuana for medical use include Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington – as well as the District of Columbia.
Four states have legalized cannabis for recreational use: Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington. Several others, including Arizona, California, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Vermont, will soon decide whether to legalize recreational marijuana.
Despite a growing number of states legalizing use of the plant, under federal law, marijuana is not legal in any form – including for medical purposes. It is, in fact, against federal law to grow, sell, or use cannabis for any purpose. Possession and use can lead to fines and jail time.
But, a majority of Americans don’t think this is a matter that should involve the federal government. Six in 10 think legalizing marijuana should be left up to each state government to decide rather than be decided by the federal government.
And, there are many who think it is none of the government’s business at the state or federal level. After all, why should other people (especially politicians) decide how we treat health ailments and what we can put in our bodies?
Marijuana is currently listed under the Controlled Substances Act as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning that for the purposes of federal law, the drug has “no medical use and a high potential for abuse” and is one of “the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence.”
The plant shares Schedule 1 status with heroin, LSD, and methaqualone (Quaalude) and it is more strictly regulated than the powerful prescription painkillers that have killed more than 165,000 people since 1999.
To put the absurdity of marijuana being classified as Schedule I in perspective, take a look at the list of drugs that are under the less-restrictive Schedule II: oxycodone, methamphetamine, methadone, fentanyl, Adderall, Ritalin, Dexedrine, and…cocaine. The following drugs are listed under Schedule III: Tylenol with codeine, ketamine, and anabolic steroids.
A total of 17,465 people died from overdosing on illicit drugs like heroin and cocaine in 2014, while 25,760 people died from overdosing on prescription drugs, including painkillers and tranquilizers like Valium, according to CDC figures.
To date, no one has ever died of a marijuana overdose.
So why is cannabis still illegal in many states, and why won’t the federal government legalize it (or at least decriminalize it)? It is safer than other drugs – including pharmaceuticals – and shows a lot of promise for the treatment and management of many health conditions.
America’s First Drug Czar, Propaganda, and Reefer Madness
Harry Jacob Anslinger was a US government official who served as the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), a predecessor agency of the DEA that was formed in 1930.
He was America’s first drug czar.
A staunch supporter of the criminalization of drugs, Ansligner played a pivotal role in cannabis prohibition. He campaigned and lobbied for passage of the Uniform State Narcotic Act in 1934, which was a revenue-producing act. The purpose of the act was to make the law uniform in various states with respect to controlling the sale, use, and regulation of narcotic drugs throughout all of the states.
When only nine states agreed to adopt the act, Anslinger launched a nationwide media campaign declaring that marijuana causes temporary insanity. The advertisements featured young people smoking marijuana and then behaving recklessly, committing crimes, killing themselves and others, or dying from marijuana use. The propaganda campaign was a success and all states signed on.
It is said that prior to the end of alcohol prohibition, Anslinger claimed that cannabis was not a problem, did not harm people, and “there is no more absurd fallacy” than the idea it makes people violent. His critics argue he shifted not due to objective evidence but due to the obsolescence of the Department of Prohibition he headed when alcohol prohibition ceased – seeking a new Prohibition. Of 30 leading scientists whose views he sought, 29 said cannabis did no harm. However, Anslinger chose to pursue only the views of the one who did.
In 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act was passed. It effectively made possession or transfer of cannabis illegal throughout the U.S. under federal law through imposition of an excise tax on all sales of hemp. It restricted possession to those who paid a steep tax for a limited set of medical and industrial uses.
Note: Although the spelling “marijuana” is more common in current usage, the actual spelling used in the Marihuana Tax Act is “marihuana.” It was the spelling most commonly used in Federal Government documents at the time.
New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia was the only authoritative voice who opposed the act. In 1939, he organized the La Guardia Committee, which began the first in-depth study into the effects of smoking marijuana.
The group’s findings systematically contradicted claims made by the Anslinger that smoking marijuana resulted in insanity, deteriorates physical and mental health, assists in criminal behavior and juvenile delinquency, is physically addictive, and is a “gateway” drug to more dangerous drugs. Released in 1944, the committee’s report stated that “the practice of smoking marihuana does not lead to addiction in the medical sense of the word.”
Anslinger was infuriated by the report, and he condemned it as unscientific. He denounced Mayor LaGuardia, the New York Academy of Medicine, and the doctors – who had worked on the research for more than five years. Anslinger said that they should not conduct more experiments or studies on cannabis without his personal permission.
The Marihuana Tax Act was overturned in 1969 in Leary v. United States, and was repealed by Congress the next year.
But that was just the beginning of what we now call the War on Drugs.
Congress replaced the act with the more comprehensive Controlled Substances Act of 1970.
Scientific American explains what happened next:
Marijuana was placed in Schedule I in 1971 provisionally, until the science could be assessed. But President Richard Nixon saw pot prohibition as a way to destroy the antiwar left, according to clandestine recordings made by Nixon in the White House as well as statements from his staff to the press. Nixon convened The National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse (what became known as the Shafer Commission) to engineer scientific support for cannabis’s Schedule I placement. “I want a goddamn strong statement on marijuana,” Nixon said in tapes from 1971. “Can I get that out of this sonofabitching, uh, domestic council? … I mean one on marijuana that just tears the ass out of them.”
The Shafer Commission found in 1972 that cannabis was as safe as alcohol, and recommended ending prohibition in favor of a public health approach. But by then the Federal Bureau of Narcotics had been removed from the Treasury Department and merged into the U.S. Department of Justice—where Nixon’s ally, Attorney General John Mitchell, placed cannabis in Schedule I in 1972; that same year he resigned to head Nixon’s re-election committee. (He later stood trial in 1974 over the Watergate scandal and served 19 months of a prison sentence for conspiracy, perjury and obstruction of justice.] “You want to know what this was really all about?” Nixon aid John Ehrlichman told journalist Dan Baum in 1994, according to an article published in Harper’s Magazine in 2016. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Consequences of Marijuana Prohibition
The war on cannabis has had serious and tragic ramifications, including the imprisonment of thousands, high taxpayer burdens, loss of jobs, ruined lives, and infringements on personal freedom.
In the Forbes article On 4/20, It’s High Time To Think About Taxes, Revenues & Marijuana, Kelly Phillips Erb outlined some of the impacts of drug laws. Here are a few points from her analysis:
- Legalizing marijuana (like nicotine and alcohol) means that it can be regulated. Regulations mean control. And control is directly linked to the almighty dollar.
- Taxpayers bear the burden of the costs (but not the revenue) to stop them. Each year, the “war on drugs” costs U.S. taxpayers $51,000,000,000.
- In 2014, there were 1,561,231 arrests for drug violations in the U.S.: 1,297,384 (83%) were for possession of drugs, not dealing or distribution. Roughly half of those arrested (619,809) for possession of drugs were arrested for possession of marijuana.
- The number of Americans incarcerated in 2014 in federal, state, and local prisons and jails was 2,224,400 (1 in every 111 adults), making it the highest incarceration rate in the world. Those prison stays are funded by tax dollars. In 2012, data indicated that a $200 transaction can cost society $100,000 for a three-year sentence.
- Possession of marijuana can result in felony charges in many states. A felony conviction can mean that you are not legally able to vote, own a gun, or enlist in the Armed Forces.
- A felony conviction on a drug charge bars you from claiming the American Opportunity Tax Credit. You can also lose eligibility for financial aid: in 2014, more than 200,000 students lost federal financial aid eligibility because of a drug conviction.
The DEA’s Domestic Cannabis Eradication / Suppression Program
The DEA runs a cannabis eradication program that provides funding to 128 state and local law enforcement agencies. Its purpose is to aggressively search for, seize, and destroy illegal marijuana grows across the US. In 2015, federal spending on the program was $18 million, consistent with levels seen in previous years. That works out to a cost-per-plant of $4.42. Last year, local, state, and federal authorities uprooted roughly 4.1 million cultivated marijuana plants in all 50 states.
Who pays for this? Americans do. Much of the money the DEA uses to run their operation comes from the Justice Department’s asset forfeiture program, which is controversial itself: under this program, police can seize your property without charging you with a crime. In 2014, the government seized $4.5 billion from citizens – that’s more than the total value of assets that were stolen by criminals the same year. In other words, more assets were taken by law enforcement than by thieves.
In 2014, via the DEA’s program, 4,300,833 plants were seized, 6,310 arrests were made, and the value of assets seized from “cultivators” totaled $27,342,950.59.
States that have legalized marijuana for recreational use were not immune from eradication programs. Last year, they continued in Washington and Oregon. Full state breakdowns have not been provided, but a DEA spokesman said that just under 36,000 marijuana plants were destroyed in Washington last year at a cost to federal taxpayers of about $950,000, or roughly $26 per plant.
In many states, the eradication program money is used to fund aerial operations involving helicopters searching for marijuana plants. Sometimes, overzealous or untrained officers seize perfectly legal plants, like okra, mistaking them for marijuana.
What incentive would the DEA have to move the plant to Schedule II or III – or remove it from the Schedule entirely?
The agency’s website states: “Marijuana is the only major drug of abuse grown within the U.S. borders.” According to the National Institutes of Health, it is the most commonly used illicit drug in the country.
Legalizing or decriminalizing cannabis would result in a tremendous financial loss for the DEA.
But the agency isn’t the only one who is at risk of substantial financial losses if use of the plant is legalized.
Profits for Big Pharma, Police, and Private Prisons
So far, research on the therapeutic benefits of cannabis shows a lot of promise. If marijuana replaces widely used prescription drugs, pharmaceutical companies stand to lose a lot of money. The medical properties of cannabis make it a direct competitor with some of their best-selling drugs, including opioid painkillers like Vicodin and Oxycontin.
Recent research suggests that marijuana allows people to treat their pain with lower doses of opioids and that providing access to marijuana reduces the prevalence of opioid use.
Perhaps decriminalizing marijuana would help resolve the “opioid epidemic” that is plaguing the nation.
The number of prescriptions for opioids doubled over a 15 year period from 105 million in 1998 to 207 million in 2013. As a result, the number of fatal overdoses from the drugs soared almost five-fold, from 4,000 deaths a year in 1999 to nearly 19,000 in 2014. That includes people who illicitly used prescription opioids and those who overdosed on pills prescribed for them, reports PBS News Hour.
The American Society for Addiction Medicine’s Opioid Addiction 2016 Facts & Figures report reveals some tragic statistics:
- Four in five new heroin users started out misusing prescription painkillers. As a consequence, the rate of heroin overdose deaths nearly quadrupled from 2000 to 2013.
- 94% of respondents in a 2014 survey of people in treatment for opioid addiction said they chose to use heroin because prescription opioids were “far more expensive and harder to obtain.”
- In 2014, there were 10,574 overdose deaths related to heroin.
- Of the 21.5 million Americans 12 or older that had a substance use disorder in 2014, 1.9 million had a substance use disorder involving prescription pain relievers and 586,000 had a substance use disorder involving heroin.
- In 2012, 259 million prescriptions were written for opioids, which is more than enough to give every American adult their own bottle of pills.
Additionally, marijuana cannot be patented, making it difficult for drug companies to profit off its sale. After all, the plant can be grown in backyards and living rooms.
Maybe that’s why pharmaceutical companies donate millions to politicians year after year. And maybe that’s why most of their donations go to politicians who are against marijuana legalization.
Pharmaceutical and health product companies injected $51 million into the 2012 federal elections and nearly $32 million into the 2014 elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP). The industry has already spent nearly $10 million on the 2016 elections and is expected to spend more.
In 2014, drug companies and their lobbying groups spent $229 million influencing lawmakers, legislation, and politicians.
Big Pharma isn’t the only industry that lobbies to maintain marijuana prohibition. Police unions, private prisons, and prison guard unions do too, because they also profit from the war on drugs.
The Drug Policy Alliance explains how police departments profit from the drug war:
Funding schemes and asset forfeiture laws have given law enforcement agencies strong financial incentives to continue the drug war. Because funding for drug task forces is often based on the number of arrests made and the amount of property seized in drug busts, the easiest way for local police to up their numbers and boost their careers is to target low-level drug offenders. To create arrest opportunities, police routinely rely on untrustworthy informants, conduct dangerous home invasions on flimsy evidence, frame suspects and commit perjury.
Asset forfeiture laws allow law enforcement agencies to seize property with minimal proof, putting the burden instead on suspects to prove their own innocence. Because these assets often go straight into the coffers of the enforcement agency, these laws have created financial incentives for property seizures that encourage corruption.
Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison corporation, which employs eight lobbyists and have waged multi-million dollar efforts to influence laws and politics. CCA owns or runs 67 prisons and detention centers nationwide and made a profit of $195 million in 2014.
Marijuana Prohibition Interferes With Research
One of the worst things about marijuana prohibition and the plant’s Schedule I categorization is this: the federal government heavily restricts research on drugs in that category. The DEA listed the plant under Schedule I under the claim that it has “no medical use” but there haven’t been many clinical trials because it is very difficult to get permission to conduct them…because cannabis is listed under Schedule I.
John Hudak explains the dilemma in his report titled The Medical Marijuana Mess: A Prescription for Fixing a Broken Policy:
Clinical research and observational studies have shown that medical marijuana can make chemotherapy more tolerable, boost appetite, reduce the eye pressure of glaucoma, relieve pain, stop muscle spasms, treat depression or anxiety, alleviate PTSD, and help with a whole host of other medical conditions. But these findings, some of which have emerged from hospitals that are among the finest in the world, are only the beginning of what we need to know about the medical potential of marijuana. Any effort to learn more is seriously hindered by the legal obstacles thrown up by the federal government’s prohibition on marijuana, which makes it very difficult for researchers to conduct clinical testing.
The result is that we cannot answer even some of the most basic questions about how to make the best use of marijuana. We don’t know every disorder marijuana can treat—and just as important, we don’t know which ones it can’t. We don’t know the ideal way to get cannabis into the body (smoking vs. vaping vs. edibles vs. creams vs. oils). We know even less about dosing, potency, interactions, and side effects.
More than 60 U.S. and international health organizations, including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Epilepsy Foundation have called on the DEA to change the drug’s scheduling status.
In a recent memo to Congress, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) said it hopes to decide whether to change the federal status of marijuana “in the first half of 2016.”
The DEA’s regulations aren’t the only obstacle researchers face. They must also follow federal regulations that require the marijuana used in studies to come from a single source: the National Center for Natural Products Research at the University of Mississippi. Between 2010 and 2015, the government provided marijuana for research purposes to an average of nine researchers per year. Experts say that level of support is nowhere near enough to keep up with research demand.
“Because of this monopoly, research-grade drugs that meet researchers’ specifications often take years to acquire, if they are produced at all,” a Brookings Institution report stated last year.
Hudak said the small number of researchers working with marijuana in any given year is due to an tedious, convoluted application process – one that requires approval from multiple government agencies and deters academics from even pursuing this type of research:
People just aren’t applying because of all the headaches involved. It’s a huge disincentive for the academic community.
University of California, San Francisco integrative oncologist Donald Abrams is one of the few researchers who have been able to obtain extremely limited, government-approved supplies of research cannabis for human trials. He told Scientific American:
Of course cannabis has medical uses. It’s pretty clear from anthropological and archaeological evidence that cannabis has been used as a medicine for thousands of years—and it was a medicine in the U.S. until 1942.
I’m an oncologist and I say all the time, not a day goes by when I’m not recommending cannabis to patients for nausea, loss of appetite, pains, insomnia and depression—it works.
Researchers believe cannabis has great potential in the treatment of major disorders including Alzheimer’s, cancer, epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and autoimmune diseases.
Lester Grinspoon, an associate professor emeritus of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, who has been researching and writing about marijuana since the 1960s and would prefer the DEA to de-list it completely, said:
It’s not that we don’t have a lot of information. If you go to PubMed you’ll find that there are 23,000 papers published on cannabis. But [with rescheduling] we can open it up to large, double-blind clinical studies.
Grinspoon added that allowing more freedom to research cannabis will yield proof that it is the versatile, non-toxic, inexpensive medicine he’s long believed it to be.
Will the DEA agree to reclassify marijuana this year? This isn’t the first time the agency has responded to a petition asking it to remove the plant from Schedule II. In fact – it is the fourth time it has responded, and a fifth request is also still pending. The first three petitions were rejected from six to 16 YEARS after they were filed.
While the DEA, the federal government, police departments, Big Pharma, and the prison industry have a lot to lose if cannabis is fully legalized, humanity has much to gain.
Hudak sums up the issue perfectly:
The U.S. government has funded research that helped cure some of the world’s most devastating diseases. With medical marijuana, the U.S. government’s prohibition doesn’t cure patients; it keeps them sick. And it also keeps them in ignorance.