This year has seen encouraging progress on marijuana decriminalization, but we have a long way to go to address decades of injustice from discriminatory prohibition.
Earlier this year, a top official at the Department of Health and Human Services wrote to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) head Anne Milgram calling for marijuana to be reclassified as a Schedule III drug under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). The DEA defines Schedule III drugs as “drugs with a moderate to low potential for physical and psychological dependence.”
Marijuana is currently a Schedule I drug. The DEA defines Schedule I drugs as “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Few would now argue that marijuana has no currently accepted medical use.
While this would be a welcome change from the status quo and a step towards addressing the government’s failed discriminatory prohibition on marijuana, full descheduling is necessary to address decades of injustice.
Thankfully this is something many in Congress understand. Just last month, a group of 31 members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to the head of the DEA urging them to consider the merits of legalization.
“The decision to schedule marijuana was rooted in stigma rather than an evidence-based process, and it is time to fully remedy this wrong,” the letter reads. “Moving marijuana to Schedule III would be an important step in the right direction, but it is not sufficient to correct the wrongs of federal prohibition or to meaningfully address the federal-state gap on cannabis policy.”
This bipartisan group of lawmakers is correct in acknowledging that the harsh scheduling of marijuana was never evidence-based. It was never rooted in any real danger posed by marijuana. The CSA and the war on drugs were a project of the Nixon administration rooted in discrimination. Former senior advisor to President Nixon John Erlichman has admitted as much:
“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,” he is quoted as saying. “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.”
Nixon’s administration was lying about the dangers associated with marijuana.
The truth is marjuana has a long history of accepted medical use. Its medical use originated in central Asia or western China. The first documented case of its use dates all the way back to 2800 BC. The father of modern medicine even wrote that marijuana was “probably the most satisfactory remedy” for a migraine.
The DEA should take the recommendation of the Department of Health and Human Services and at least move marijuana to Schedule III. This would be a clear rejection of the fearmongering and discriminatory motivations behind its original Schedule I placement and an acceptance of its clear accepted medical use. Congress should continue to work on a bipartisan basis to legalize marijuana.