Pot Wars: Will Fear Trump Voters’ Decisions?

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Photo by Cannabis Culture via Flickr

Voters in 29 states (plus the District of Columbia) have so far approved medical marijuana, and eight states have similarly legalized recreational pot. But many state governments, and most recently the feds, don’t appear to be listening.

In Florida, legislators tried to limit marijuana availability to pill form. In Michigan, it took the legislature almost nine years after medical marijuana was approved to craft a licensing process. Then it threatened to deny licenses to any of the existing dispensaries that didn’t shut down before applying for one.

And in Maine, the governor refused to sign a bill implementing the people’s vote. Among his reasons: he wanted to wait until US Attorney General Jeff Sessions decides if or how he’s going to enforce federal marijuana law.

On Jan. 4, Sessions delivered his answer, announcing he would let federal prosecutors decide how aggressively to enforce the law even in states where pot was legal—a blatant reversal of the policy pursued by his predecessor Eric Holder. The impact of that decision is still unclear, with some observers suggesting it was just a “symbolic” move.

What is clear, however, is that the federal laws on marijuana, which treat it as an illegal “Schedule 1” drug, will remain on the books for the foreseeable future. Sessions rescinded two documents, written by previous deputy attorneys generals, that mandated restraint on enforcing federal marijuana laws in states where marijuana had been legalized: the 2009 so-called “Ogden Memo,” written by David W. Ogden; and the 2013 “Cole Memo,” written by James Cole.

Legal medical marijuana is still partly protected by the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment (formerly known as Rohrabacher-Farr), originally enacted in 2014 and repeatedly extended—most recent as part of the annual budget resolution to Jan. 18. The amendment says federal funds cannot be used to prevent states from “implementing their own state laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession or cultivation of medical marijuana.”

Not surprisingly, Sessions doesn’t like Rohrabacher-Blumenauer. He has listed a number of specious reasons for his unqualified opposition to any type of marijuana legalization, including implying that it causes more automobile deaths than alcohol (in support, he cited one contested study’s measure of all drug-related deaths); or that legalization might make opioid addictions worse. (In fact, opioid deaths seem to decline where legal cannabis is available.)

But even the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)—certainly no friend to marijuana—states, “No death from overdose of marijuana has been reported.”

Where does this hostility come from?

Fear of Change

The answer is simple: fear. Fear of change, fear of being blamed for actions, fear of being blamed for inaction. Politicians prefer delaying tactics, CYA, don’t put off until tomorrow what you can put off until next fiscal year.

That cannabis was made illegal for all uses, including medical, dates back to the early 20th century, when then-commissioner of the US. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics Harry Anslinger drummed up anti-cannabis fever— according to author Alexandra Chasin, who notes that Anslinger popularized the word marijuana or marihuana.

She argued that his efforts were aimed at protecting his government fiefdom after the repeal of Prohibition. Lifting the ban on alcohol meant he would have less power, less authority, less budget and fewer staff.

Arguably, his efforts led to the federal government effectively banning cannabis with the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act (although many states had already outlawed it).

When President Richard Nixon placed marijuana on Schedule I of the new Controlled Substances Act in 1970—the most restricted schedule, meaning that it was considered to have “a high potential for abuse,” has “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States,” and demonstrated “a lack of accepted safety for use [even under] under medical supervision”—it was really a fear of counterculture generation emerging during the Vietnam War era.

At least that’s what Nixon counsel John Ehrlichman told journalist Dan Baum in 1994 (in a 2016 article).

The claim that marijuana has no accepted, safe use is a Catch-22. Schedule I status means it’s almost impossible to get permission to test it. Doctors are reluctant to endorse a drug that hasn’t undergone rigorous scientific tests for fear of causing harm or losing their medical licenses.

In fact, cannabis has been a part of the United States Pharmacopeia from 1850 to 1941, and used for millennia before that, including in a compendium attributed to mythical Chinese emperor Shen-Nung.

Some students of history have alleged the use of “marijuana” instead of “cannabis” in the 1930s was racist. Exploiting the fear of foreigners, it was a way to link the drug with Mexicans; and it was also associated in much of the rhetoric of that era with African Americans.

But it could also have been a cynical attempt to change the name so people wouldn’t know that what they were banning was a longtime medicine.

AMA Wants Review

The American Medical Association (AMA), the country’s most prestigious group of medical physicians, appeared to acknowledge that. In a draft AMA resolution presented in October, it urged “that marijuana’s status as a federal Schedule I controlled substance be reviewed with the goal of facilitating the conduct of clinical research and development of cannabinoid-based medicines, and alternate delivery methods.”

Without such testing, most of the existing evidence can be challenged as partisan, anti-drug screeds by politicians such as Sessions, or as hippy-dippy paeans of the wondrous effects of marijuana for human consciousness and pain ease—or, equally off-putting, as a product of the avarice of entrepreneurs who want to profit from legal cannabis.

Not that the canna-business is easy. Banks won’t accept deposits from them or issue paychecks for their employees because of continuing federal illegality.

Stuck in the middle are people who suffer from ills that anecdotal evidence suggests cannabis or its components might alleviate. Those ills include chronic pain, nausea, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even opioid addiction in the best drug rehab centers. (One such center has opened in West Los Angeles.)

Stephen Bitsoli

Stephen Bitsoli

Legalization—of medical marijuana at least—could make their lives easier and do little harm.

The more immediate danger to their peace of mind comes this week, when Congress decides whether to renew Rohrabacher-Blumenauer.

Will reason once again carry the day—or will fear win the argument?

Stephen Bitsoli, a Michigan-based freelancer, writes about addiction, politics and related matters for several blogs. He welcomes readers’ comments.

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