October 24th, 2016

Cannabis Prohibition And The November Election, Revised

The current federal prohibition of cannabis has not been hotly debated in the current presidential campaign. Although both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have suggested that the federal government’s criminalization of cannabis should be lessened, the marijuana issue has been snuffed out behind the vitriol over the economy, foreign policy, Hillary Clinton’s emails, and Donald Trump’s treatment of women. The voting public, on the other hand, appears to be eager to address the issue. National polls show that a majority of the population has shifted toward favoring legalization. Polls by Pew and Gallup have that number holding steady at between 57 and 60 percent, a substantial increase from 10 years ago.

Resistance to reconsideration by nationally elected and appointed officials has led to the organizing of ballot initiatives in many states. This November, voters in four states will consider whether to make marijuana legal for recreational use. Another five states will vote on legalization for medical use. Polls suggest that the largest of these states, California, will likely vote to allow recreational use, joining four other states and the District of Columbia.

Each time the laws in a state are liberalized, however, the tension between state and federal law intensifies. Last month the Drug Enforcement Administration reiterated its refusal to reclassify marijuana out of its Schedule I status in the Controlled Drug Substances Act. Last year, a Senate bill – to create a special category of drug scheduling to more easily allow scientific research on cannabis – failed to pass. Under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, in conflicts such as this between federal and state law, the federal law holds.

The choice between total prohibition of cannabis and some degree of legalization is a difficult one. On the one hand, its use can lead immediately to significant problems, such as impaired driving – especially when combined with alcohol. Heavy use by those younger than 18 can lead to cognitive damage, and about nine percent of all users become addicted. At Kolmac, I regularly see patients whose lives have been severely disrupted by the use of cannabis, which many people confidently assert to be “non-addictive.”

On the other hand, including cannabis in the “war on drugs” has led to racially discriminatory felonies and a drug underworld reminiscent of the one that developed around alcohol prohibition. Furthermore, increasing evidence from medical research – mostly done outside the USA because its Schedule I status obstructs research in this country – shows cannabis to have medical utility and safety exceeding many currently available medications.

The legal discrepancy is currently being managed by a Department of Justice memorandum to the effect that the federal laws will not be implemented as long as the liberalization of marijuana laws is well regulated by the state. As long as the federal law remains on the books, however, this is a temporary compromise – sort of a “finger in the dike.”

Reflections of the change in public sentiment can be seen in this year’s campaign for president. According to John Hudak, “campaign 2016 was the first presidential race in which marijuana reform was treated as a legitimate, serious public policy issue. It was important enough so that those vying to be presidents of the United States not only were asked about their history with the drug but were also expected to develop policy” (Marijuana, p.115).

Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton favor legalization of cannabis for medical purposes. While not at the top of her list (#97 of 112 reasons to elect her), Hillary Clinton’s position is that “she will reschedule marijuana from a Schedule I to a Schedule II substance.” The eventual winner will inherit this thorny issue. We will all have a front-row seat to watch how it is handled in 2017 and beyond. Stay tuned to this site for news as this issue evolves.

Editor’s Note: Last week’s post on this site, regarding the upcoming voter initiatives on the liberalization of cannabis laws, erroneously stated that the presidential candidates had avoided taking positions on this issue. A subsequent Oct. 19 New York Times editorial and a just released book Marijuana: A Short History by John Hudak made me aware of my mistake. This revised post incorporates this new information and replaces last week’s post.

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