Recreational marijuana is now legal in four states, allowed for medical purposes in 23, and decriminalized in 15. A majority of Americans support legalization, according to the nation's most authoritative public opinion poll. In Colorado, legal weed is now a $700 million industry, and the state has more tax revenue from pot sales than it knows what to do with. Nationally, the market for legal cannabis jumped to $2.7 billion last year, and analysts project it could quadruple by 2019 if legalization trends continue.
But despite the recent success of the legalization movement, the federal government has yet to get on board. One looming issue, in particular, is holding the marijuana market back, which is its status as a Schedule I drug, a classification that puts weed in the same category as heroin and other narcotics that have no recognized medical value.
The federal scheduling has been a singular source of frustration among marijuana activists for decades. It has held back research into the medical benefits of cannabis, stymied innovation and investment, and cut off the burgeoning industry's access to banking institutions. And despite the assurances of the Obama administration, it has kept medical marijuana dispensaries, cultivators, and patients in constant fear of being raided and locked up in federal penitentiary.
As the disparity between state and federal law grows—and as a growing number of senior Obama administration officials publicly contradict the federal line—marijuana advocates are agitating to break down what they see as the biggest federal hurdle to the legalization movement. Recent statements by President Obama, as well as a spate of new bipartisan marijuana bills introduced in Congress, have raised their hopes, suggesting that the feds may be open to downgrading marijuana's schedule classification in the near future.
In an interview with VICE last month, Obama noted the growing bipartisan support for decriminalizing pot. "You're starting to see not just liberal Democrats, but also some very conservative Republicans recognize [prohibition] doesn't make sense, including sort of the libertarian wing of the Republican Party," he said.
"They see the money and how costly it is to incarcerate," he added. "So, we may actually be able to make some progress on the decriminalization side. At a certain point, if enough states end up decriminalizing, then Congress may then reschedule marijuana."
In this and other statements, Obama suggests that it's up to Congress to change marijuana's classification under the Controlled Substances Act. But while the executive branch has the authority to change scheduling without congressional action, the White House has so far avoided talk of a unilateral action to reschedule the drug. The lack of action frustrates legalization advocates, who note that Obama hasn't been shy about bypassing Congress on other issues, including like immigration and gun control.
"Comments by the surgeon general and the president himself seriously call into question the appropriateness of keeping marijuana in Schedule I, a category that's supposed to be reserved for substances with a high potential for abuse and no medical use," said Tom Angell, founder of Marijuana Majority. "There's absolutely no reason that this president—who has often gone out of his way to take action when Congress won't—shouldn't use his legitimate powers to reschedule marijuana. Voters overwhelmingly support marijuana reform, and making moves to line up federal policy with his own stated views about the drug could be an important part of Obama's legacy."
Responding to my request for comment, the White House did not directly address the question of rescheduling. In a statement, Samuel Schumach, press secretary for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, pointed out that under Obama, the DEA has increased the amount of marijuana made available for research. "While marijuana remains a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act," he said, "this Administration has actively increased support for research into what components of the marijuana plant could be used as medicine."
"To date, however, neither the FDA nor the Institute of Medicine have found smoked marijuana to meet the modern standard for safe or effective medicine," Schumach continued. "The Administration's position on enforcement has been clear and consistent: while the prosecution of drug traffickers remains an important priority, targeting individual marijuana users—especially those with serious illnesses and their caregivers—is not the best allocation of limited Federal law enforcement resources."
It is true that, behind the scenes, in the Obama administration has quietly eased up on the federal government's position on marijuana research. On Thursday, the National Institute on Drug Abuse—which controls the sole supply of legal marijuana for research in the US— gave the green light to a long-delayed study exploring the possible benefits of marijuana as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. The study is notable because it will be the first in the US to use whole-plant marijuana, rather than extracted THC.
In June, the FDA announced it was beginning a mandatory review of marijuana's safety and effectiveness—and the agency could that marijuana be dropped from the list of Schedule I drugs. In a statement sent to VICE Thursday, an FDA spokesman said the review "is still ongoing and there is no timeline established for its completion."
While the administration tiptoes toward liberalizing federal drug laws, a group of Democrats and libertarian-leaning Republicans in Congress have taken up Obama's challenge. In March, Democratic Senators Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand teamed up with Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky to introduce the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States (CARERS) Act.
It's the first ever Senate bill that would let states to set their own policy on medical marijuana. It would also drop the drug from Schedule I to Schedule II, and allow doctors to prescribe cannabis to military veterans for PTSD.
Democrat Sen. Barbara Boxer of California and GOP Nevada Dean Heller signed on as co-sponsors to the Senate bill last month, and California Democratic Sen. Diane Feinstein said she is reviewing the legislation. The House version of the bill, introduced by Tennessee Democrat Steve Cohen and Arkansas Republican Don Young, gained seven new bipartisan co-sponsors this week. The bill's authors expect several more GOP members to sign on when Congress returns from the Easter recess, according to a source familiar with the discussions.
"We need policies that empower states to legalize medical marijuana if they so choose—recognizing that there are Americans who can realize real medical benefits if this treatment option is brought out of the shadows," Booker said in a statement this week. "The growing momentum and bipartisan support for the CARERS Act in both the Senate and House are a clear indication that together, we can and will make medical marijuana accessible to the millions of Americans who could benefit from it."
The bill has attracted significant interest from parents with children suffering from various epilepsy conditions, since cannabinoid oils have shown potential to be an effective anti-seizure medication. A Change.org petition in support of the CARERS Act started by one such mother currently has more than 124,000 supporters.
Both bills face an uphill battle in Congress. In the Senate, the first big hurdle is getting the bill past Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, who controls which legislation makes it onto the committee's schedule and who has typically been skeptical of efforts to liberalize drug policy. At a town hall in Iowa Monday, Grassley said that he would have to read the bill before deciding whether to allow it to move forward.
The legislation may have a better chance in the House, where members have shown more interest in loosening drug laws and enforcement policy. Last year, 49 House Republicans joined Democrats to pass an amendment halting DEA raids on medical marijuana operations. On the other hand, five of the "no" votes on that amendment came from the GOP leadership, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte.
So while there are several possible avenues for dropping marijuana from Schedule I, each has a relatively small window for success. There's also the unfortunate reality of Washington politics, which dictates that any broad, bipartisan legislation like the CARERS Act will have to be passed in 2015, before Congress gets swept up in election fever. And any action taken by the Obama administration could be undone by his successor.
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