One thing President Obama fairly easily could accomplish in his second term is to put the country's marijuana laws on a rational basis. In particular, the federal government needs to clarify its relation to state medical marijuana laws, such as California's Proposition 215, the legalization of medical voters passed in 1996.
Unfortunately, statements Wednesday by Deputy White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest kept matters muddled. While he said the president believes that "targeting individual marijuana users ... is not the best allocation for federal law enforcement resources," he also said the president does not "at this point, advocate a change in the law."
That's the problem. Currently, marijuana is classified as what's called a Schedule I drug, one of five classifications the federal government uses. "Schedule I drugs are considered the most dangerous class of drugs with a high potential for abuse and potentially severe psychological and/or physical dependence," according to the website of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Other drugs in the category include LSD, peyote and heroin. They are severely restricted.
This makes things complicated not only for California medical-marijuana patients and their doctors, but also for the states of Washington and Colorado, which last November legalized recreational use of marijuana. To add to the confusion, last week, CNN's chief medical correspondent, Sanjay Gupta, wrote he had "come to the realization that it is irresponsible not to provide the best care we can as a medical community, care that could involve marijuana." Ironically, Dr. Gupta "once was considered a candidate for surgeon general" by Obama, according to a McClatchy report.
Whether the president ultimately curbs federal involvement with individual users "remains to be seen," Dale Gieringer told us; he's the California coordinator for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
"I think they're confused about what to do," he said about federal authorities. "They're certainly giving mixed signals. They have been less than helpful in negotiating with the states or giving guidance to the states. Right now we're seeing more of the status quo in California: random raids and prosecutions."
California has been struggling with the implementation of Prop. 215 because the initiative was unclear in some areas. In particular, it allowed cities to effectively circumvent the law by regulating marijuana dispensaries out of existence, as Anaheim did in July. Gieringer said "opposition by the feds also dampened interest in the state Legislature to regulate medical marijuana" to deal with the problems of Prop. 215.
He pointed out that, although Congress could act, the president has it within his authority to change the classification of marijuana to a Schedule II drug. According to the DEA's website, these are "drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with a high potential for abuse, less abuse potential than Schedule I drugs, with use potentially leading to severe psychological or physical dependence." Current Schedule II drugs include cocaine, methamphetamine, methadone, fentanyl, Dexedrine, Adderall and Ritalin.
It does seem pretty strange that marijuana is considered more dangerous than cocaine. If marijuana were switched to a Schedule II classification, prescribing it would be easier in medical-marijuana states. And research on marijuana's medical properties, for which it currently is very difficult to obtain permission, could be eased.
For us, this is a matter of allowing leeway for the 50 states, which are supposed to be the "crucibles of democracy." The president should ask the DEA and the Food and Drug Administration, which determine the drug classifications, to reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II drug.
And he should to ask his Justice Department and DEA to let the 50 states establish, and enforce, their own marijuana laws.
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