Health & Social Policy Diagram of Marijuana Plant

Published on February 21st, 2015 | by Dustin Palmer

Marijuana Drug Scheduling: Something We Need to Ask Ourselves

A Partnership Piece from The Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University

How many readers have consumed marijuana before? How many readers have been actively harmed by someone under the influence of marijuana?

It may surprise you to know that marijuana is currently listed under Schedule 1, the most dangerous category, and a class of drugs deemed more dangerous than cocaine, methamphetamine, ketamine, and oxycodone, among others. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Schedule 1 drugs have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

In an interview with Katie Couric last September, outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder said, “whether or not marijuana is as serious of a drug as heroin…whether or not they should be in the same category is something I think we need to ask ourselves.”

Concerned citizens from all political persuasions must agree that they should not. The DEA should immediately initiate a review of marijuana to either reschedule the drug to level 4 or 5 (classes that include Xanax or Lyrica, a drug used to treat nerve pain and adult epilepsy) or remove it from federal drug scheduling entirely.

Schedule 1 Classification is Anti-Science and Anti-Health

There are strict limits on scientific production and use of Schedule 1 drugs that limit medical research on marijuana. With few exceptions, the federal government has disallowed systemic research under federal funding.

However, the bulk of available evidence suggests marijuana may offer relief to those who suffer from a variety of mental and physical conditions. The American Medical Association recommends a reduction in schedule to allow further study. Hundreds of organizations for the ill support this stance as well. Among them are numerous veterans associations, many of whose members find medical marijuana to be the best treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have passed medical marijuana laws in direct contradiction to federal regulations. However, medical marijuana consumers and producers still face an uncertain legal environment. Some are actively targeted by the DEA for arrest and prosecution, and even in the most permissive environments, both private investment and functional banking service availability severely lags the industry’s growth due to concerns with federal oversight.

Schedule 1 classification prevents research on a drug that could provide relief for Americans everywhere. The DEA’s stance is anti-science and anti-health.

Schedule 1 Classification Props Up the Failed and Costly War on Drugs

The forty-year War on Drugs is a costly failure. Despite billions of dollars in preventative measures, a 2014 Pew poll found that 47% of Americans have used marijuana, a threefold increase from the start of the War on Drugs. These numbers are steadily climbing.

Over the same period, the incarceration rate in the U.S. has risen to the highest in the world. The Drug Policy Alliance estimates the annual financial cost of the War at $51 billion. to the American public, with additional crime and violence across the borders, particularly in Central and South America.

Moreover, the financial, health, and social costs are disproportionately borne by low-income families and minorities. African Americans are almost four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana use as whites, despite evidence that different ethnicities use marijuana at comparable rates. Recent investigations into “modern day debtor’s prisons” illustrate the specific challenges faced by poor people.

Schedule 1 classification reinforces these systemic consequences and raises serious doubts about the War on Drugs’ dubious and perverse outcomes. Reclassification would work against these trends by reducing wasted resources and compounding inequalities.

Careful Regulation to Reduce Harm

Removing a drug from the federal scheduling system does not imply unfettered access. There are a number of ways that the government can address substances with potential public health consequences, including regulation, taxation, and non-criminal fines and fees. Regardless of its schedule, abuse of marijuana could even remain illegal for some consumers and thus subject to criminal prosecution.

A Scientific American analysis found both alcohol and tobacco to be more addictive and more harmful than marijuana. Almost 7 in 10 Americans believe alcohol to be more harmful than marijuana. Tobacco smoking causes about 1 in 5 of all deaths in America each year. Yet these two drugs are exempt from drug scheduling statutes, while still regulated by other means. Some small interest groups notwithstanding, the vast majority of the public is in concurrence with their exemption from federal drug scheduling.

So, let’s ask ourselves: Is marijuana more dangerous than cocaine and meth? Does it have fewer health benefits than alcohol and smoking tobacco? Should it be banned from scientific study and evaluation?

Let us hope that the incoming U.S. Attorney General will hear the clear answer.

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About the Author

Dustin Palmer

Dustin Palmer is a first year MPA student at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. He previously worked on legislative strengthening programs at the National Democratic Institute in Washington, D.C. and spent a formative summer with the St. Louis County Public Defender. He plans to pursue advocacy work on global access to justice issues after graduation.



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