DEA poised to end decades of stupid marijuana law
For more than four decades, the U.S. government has malignly and stupidly and outrageously labeled marijuana to be as dangerous as heroin, the drug that killed 11,000 people in 2015. As my colleague Jen Hayden noted Wednesday, this may be about to change:
In a memo to lawmakers this week, the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] announced plans to decide “in the first half of 2016” whether or not it will reschedule marijuana, according to The Washington Post. Cannabis is now listed under the Controlled Substances Act as a Schedule 1 drug, a categorization it shares with other drugs, such as heroin and LSD, which the U.S. government defines as “the most dangerous drugs” that have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”
Sounds hopeful. But the generals in the War on (some) Drugs have not yet surrendered. The DEA has twice before rejected a rescheduling, in 1996 and 2002. And the Food and Drug Administration has since looked twice at whether marijuana should be rescheduled and decided it shouldn’t.
But if, this time, the DEA actually does recategorize marijuana, it could finally inject common sense into laws affecting the lives of millions of Americans who use pot. The first bit of common sense being that marijuana is obviously nowhere near as dangerous as heroin, or cocaine, or methamphetamine. Or tobacco or alcohol, neither of which has ever been on the DEA schedule even though these two kill far more people than all other drugs combined.
What’s most infuriating about this ongoing policy idiocy is that even if the DEA removes marijuana from Schedule I, or better yet takes it off all its drug schedules, this won’t by itself do anything to repair the wrecked lives of those who have been penalized for being caught and convicted of marijuana crimes.
Marijuana should never have been placed on Schedule I in the first place, a political move with strong elements of racial bias backed up by government efforts to block or undermine scientific marijuana studies and distort the results of the few that were undertaken which showed medical benefits and/or no or low levels of harm from using pot. The latest scientific research makes this clear.
In her outstanding book—The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness—law professor Michelle Alexander points out that the war on drugs has been an engine of mass incarceration. Drug convictions have increased more than 1000 percent since the drug war began, she says. And the racial disparity is grotesque. In some states, 80-90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison have been one race: African American. In the 1990s, when the war was being massively escalated, “nearly 80 percent of the increase in drug arrests was for marijuana possession.” By “ ‘getting tough’ almost exclusively in the ‘hood, we’ve managed to create a vast new racial undercaste in an astonishingly short period of time.” This, despite the fact, that there is no difference in the percentage of blacks and whites who use marijuana.
As Malcolm Harris wrote a few years ago: “It’s not the American people who got addicted to weed— it’s their cops.” Hundreds of billions have been spent to make users of marijuana and their suppliers miserable. It didn’t have to be this way.
After the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 passed, the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse produced a pair of reports, one of which was “Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding.” Here’s Harris:
“A Signal of Misunderstanding” is the cool uncle of government reports. After a thorough review, the commission decided that marijuana was mostly a symbolic problem rather than a real public-health crisis. The proper role of the federal government, it wrote, was to lower the emotional stakes of the debate so that they match the drug’s actual risks. The commission concluded that the criminal-justice system was the wrong way to address personal use. “The existing social and legal policy (i.e., prohibition) is out of proportion to the individual and social harm engendered by the use of the drug,” a group of adults reasonably concluded. Yes, more than 40 years ago, a government commission headed by a Republican, reporting to Nixon, tasked with developing what would become marijuana policy for much of the world, told the feds to chill out. The whole story sounds like stoner apocrypha, but it’s true.
The report was not, however, to become policy.
Getting marijuana off the DEA schedule of drugs is only the first step if the government is going to get serious about drug-law reform.
Everyone now in prison for nonviolent marijuana offenses should be released if cannabis gets pulled from Schedule I. Everyone who has ever been convicted on such charges should have their criminal records in the matter expunged. And they should again be eligible for student loans, scholarships, federal grants, licenses, and other benefits (including SNAP [food stamps] in the 13 states that prohibit felons from getting them). Everyone should get back the cars, houses and other property seized in marijuana arrests or be justly compensated.
Okay, yeah, sure, I am just a dreamer. But getting to justice often starts with a seemingly impossible dream.
(Originally appeared at DailyKos. Image creative Flickr Mark/ CC)