For those who watched the Democratic presidential debate a couple of weeks ago might recall the part where the candidates were asked about their stance on marijuana. I personally thought the responses were weak on the whole. However, it looks like presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is taking it up a notch by saying that the federal government should remove marijuana from being scheduled by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). As much as I disagree with Sanders on a whole host of issues, I have to say that in this case, he's right: having marijuana scheduled as a Schedule I drug is ridiculous. Why?
According to the DEA, a Schedule I drug is defined as a drug with no currently accepted medical use, has a high potential for abuse, potentially causes severe psychological or physical dependence, and is categorized as such because it is considered the most dangerous drug out there. I will start with asking how it cannot be considered to have an accepted medical use when, as of date, 23 states and the District of Columbia legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes. A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows how marijuana indeed has medicinal properties. It's nice to know that the wording can be vague enough in the statute where the ambiguity of who has to accept its validity can be up for debate. Leaving that one aside for now, why is it that marijuana is considered so dangerous that it is a Schedule I drug? From the DEA's perspective, marijuana is more dangerous than even meth or cocaine, both of which are only Schedule II drugs. Taking a study done back in 2010 (Nutt et al., 2010), marijuana is safer than alcohol, crack, heroin, cocaine, or tobacco (see below), yet two of those drugs are still widely sold in the United States. If you want a more recent, 2015 study, from Scientific Reports, I can provide that, as well (Lachenheimer and Rehm, 2015).
As I was explaining when I was doing some myth-busting on marijuana last year, marijuana is a drug, and like other drugs, it comes with benefits and risks. However, unlike many other drugs, the risks of smoking marijuana are relatively small in comparison. I personally wish that we would simply allow for marijuana's legalization in the entire nation. If the fight for legalizing same-sex marriage is any indication of how America handles social issues of this magnitude, my educated guess is that it will start off with a few states legalizing marijuana, much like we are seeing now. Eventually, the movement to legalize marijuana will pick up momentum where more and more states legalize it. Before we know it, marijuana will be legal in all 50 states and DC, and we'll look back wondering how we as a nation could have been oblivious enough to allow a repeat of the Prohibition. The fact we see the American approval rate for legalizing marijuana at 58 percent helps confirm my educated guess.
I don't see full legalization of marijuana happening anytime soon, but that doesn't mean we should accept the status quo. For one, it perpetuates the War on Drugs and the "tough on crime" mentality that should have died years ago. It also keeps marijuana in the underground market, which has its own additional costs. And let's not even begin to mention law enforcement costs surrounding a Schedule I categorization of marijuana. In this case, we shouldn't let good be the enemy of perfect because there are costs to keeping marijuana as a Schedule I drug. Rather than continue with failed drug policy, we should at the very least head in the right direction and reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II drug.
Earlier this month, researchers over at the centrist Brookings Institution released a paper showing how a Schedule I categorization is tantamount to the government declaring war on medicinal marijuana research. As the authors of the paper point out, it won't suddenly legalize marijuana because Schedule II merely recognizes that there are "accepted medical benefits," but is still dangerous. Given the confines of international drug treaties that have been signed and that it's a politically safe option, perhaps categorizing marijuana as a Schedule II drug is the best that can be done for now, even though it will be quite the pain to implement. At least that way, more substantive research can be done to determine whether marijuana is really the risk that naysayers claim it is.
11-6-2015: The DEA recently released its 2015 Drug Threat Assessment Summary, in which it surveyed over 1,000 law enforcement agents regarding the danger of illicit drugs. Guess which drug made the bottom of the list at 6 percent? You guessed it: marijuana.