Marijuana And The US: Is Nationwide Decriminalization On The Horizon?
(MintPress) – On Election Day, three states voted to pass state laws that legalized the recreational use of cannabis, despite federal restrictions. Two states — Colorado and Washington — passed the resolution. Along with the 20 states that allow medical marijuana use — Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Washington, D.C. — and the six additional states that decriminalized personal marijuana use — Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina and Ohio — the plurality of all American states have a more liberal view on marijuana use than the federal government, which lists marijuana as a Schedule I substance or a substance with “no currently accepted medical use.”
Schedule I substances must, under 21 U.S.C. § 812b, have a high potential for abuse, have no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States and have a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or substance under medical supervision. The sale of cannabis is illegal under current federal law, although an Oct. 19, 2009 Justice Department memorandum to the United States Attorneys established guidelines that discouraged the prosecution of patients and users of cannabis who are obeying their respective state laws.
The federal government’s opposition to medical marijuana lies contrary to the federal government’s Health and Human Services’ patent on medical marijuana – -patent number US6630507 — which, according to its abstract:
“Cannabinoids have been found to have antioxidant properties, unrelated to NMDA receptor antagonism. This new found property makes cannabinoids useful in the treatment and prophylaxis of wide variety of oxidation associated diseases, such as ischemic, age-related, inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. The cannabinoids are found to have particular application as neuroprotectants, for example in limiting neurological damage following ischemic insults, such as stroke and trauma, or in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and HIV dementia.”
The United States is second only to Canada in the percentage of adults that have used cannabis in their lifetimes with 42.4 percent as of 2002-2003. In 2009, 13.7 percent of the American population from age 15 to 64 used cannabis at least once that year. In comparison, in 2010, 19.3 percent of all adults 18 years or older smoked tobacco.
The federal marijuana regulations — along with most of the controlled substances laws — are among the most racially motivated laws still being enforced. First introduced as a proposed control for a “poison” in New York and later as an intended dig against Mexican farm laborers, the ban was enforced based on racial misconceptions on Latino and black use of the drug.
Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Bureau of Narcotics (now the Drug Enforcement Agency), while contributing for the American Magazine, wrote unsubstantiated and blatantly racist quotes, such as:
“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others.”
“…the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races.”
“Marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death.”
“Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”
“Marijuana leads to pacifism and communist brainwashing”
“You smoke a joint and you’re likely to kill your brother.”
“Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.”
William Randolph Hearst, a notable hater of Mexicans (Pancho Villa took 800,000 acres of timberland from him), used his use of “yellow journalism” to assist Anslinger’s campaign (Hearst was heavily invested in wood paper production, which hemp paper production threatened). From the San Francisco Examiner:
“Marijuana makes fiends of boys in thirty days — Hashish goads users to bloodlust.”
“By the tons it is coming into this country — the deadly, dreadful poison that racks and tears not only the body, but the very heart and soul of every human being who once becomes a slave to it in any of its cruel and devastating forms. … Marijuana is a short cut to the insane asylum. Smoke marijuana cigarettes for a month and what was once your brain will be nothing but a storehouse of horrid specters. Hasheesh makes a murderer who kills for the love of killing out of the mildest mannered man who ever laughed at the idea that any habit could ever get him. …”
It could be argued that Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed for a ban of cannabis in order to have Hearst support his administration’s policies. At any rate, all of this led to widespread cannabis bans, and ultimately, a federal ban — first, through an unpayable tax and later, through scheduling.
Despite reports that marijuana is neither overtly dangerous nor a gateway drug, the United States has been reluctant to approach reconsidering this infamous ban. However, with a plurality of all states now in direct violation of federal law, the United States government faces an interesting choice: stick to its guns and maintain the ban or acknowledge the will of more than half of the people and remove marijuana from Schedule I.
Why is marijuana illegal in the first place?
“That there is a certain amount of narcotic addiction of an objectionable character no one will deny. The newspapers have called attention to it so prominently that there must be some grounds for [their] statements. It has surprised me, however, that the facts on which these statements have been based have not been brought before this committee by competent primary evidence. We are referred to newspaper publications concerning the prevalence of marijuana addiction. We are told that the use of marijuana causes crime.
“But yet no one has been produced from the Bureau of Prisons to show the number of prisoners who have been found addicted to the marijuana habit. An informed inquiry shows that the Bureau of Prisons has no evidence on that point.
“You have been told that school children are great users of marijuana cigarettes. No one has been summoned from the Children’s Bureau to show the nature and extent of the habit, among children.
“Inquiry of the Children’s Bureau shows that they have had no occasion to investigate it and know nothing particularly of it.
“Inquiry of the Office of Education— and they certainly should know something of the prevalence of the habit among the school children of the country, if there is a prevalent habit— indicates that they have had no occasion to investigate and know nothing of it …”
Despite private reservations about the dangers of marijuana and the public and often inaccurate persecution of the drug, the American Medical Association has traditionally sided with the federal government in its opposition of marijuana. However, in its 2009 recommendations on the use of cannabis for medical purposes, the AMA suggested that research into the benevolent use of medical marijuana would be prudent and that discussions to reform Schedule I to reflect this research would be worthwhile.
The Drug Enforcement Agency, while suggesting that it supports continued studies on the use of medicinal marijuana, has presented such anecdotes, such as the one following, in its 2011 position paper:
“Organizers behind the ‘medical’ marijuana movement have not dealt with ensuring that the product meets the standards of modern medicine: quality, safety and efficacy. There is no standardized composition or dosage; no appropriate prescribing information; no quality control; no accountability for the product; no safety regulation; no way to measure its effectiveness (besides anecdotal stories); and no insurance coverage. Science, not popular vote, should determine what medicine is. The legalization movement is not simply a harmless academic exercise. The mortal danger of thinking that marijuana is ‘medicine’ was graphically illustrated by a story from California. In the spring of 2004, Irma Perez was ‘n the throes of her first experience with the drug Ecstasy … when, after taking one Ecstasy tablet, she became ill and told friends that she felt like she was … ‘going to die’ … Two teenage acquaintances did not seek medical care and instead tried to get Perez to smoke marijuana. When that failed due to her seizures, the friends tried to force-feed marijuana leaves to her, ‘apparently because [they] knew that drug is sometimes used to treat cancer patients.’ Irma Perez lost consciousness and died a few days later when she was taken off life support. She was 14 years old.”
Despite the president’s promise in 2008 that he will not use the Department of Justice (DOJ) to impose national laws on states that legalized medical marijuana, the DOJ has hit and closed several dispensaries in California and other states under Obama. Since Nixon, who introduce the current drug scheduling, every president — except Jimmy Carter, who ran on a campaign of decriminalization in 1976, and Barack Obama, who promised less aggressive enforcement in 2008 — has ran on an anti-drug policy.
Internationally, marijuana is regulated under the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs Treaty of 1961. Signed by 183 nations, the treaty creates schedules that restricts the growing, cultivating and use of various narcotics and authorizes the World Health Organization and the Commission on Narcotic Drugs to amend the schedules as needed. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime is charged with enforcement, although — since the treaty is not self-enforcing — each signatory must enforce laws compliant to the treaty. Because the United States’ Controlled Substance Act of 1970 — the U.S.’ complementary bill to the treaty — mandates that federal laws are at least as strict as the Single Convention, modifying federal scheduling is a tricky, if not outright difficult, maneuver.
However, articles 1, 2, 4, 9, 12, 19 and 49 of the Convention explicitly encourage the medicinal use of controlled drugs, including marijuana. The Convention condemns drug addiction, however, and seeks to limit it through the cutting off of drug supplies.
Cannabis is a Schedule IV drug, according to the Single Convention. Schedule IV is the most severe, and while, technically, Schedule IV drugs are reserved for research only, the Convention allows the various parties to make their own reasonable judgments regarding the legislation of Schedule IV drugs.
While marijuana research is permitted under the Single Convention, the reality behind this is daunting in the United States. Researchers must be registered with the DEA, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and a host of other government agencies. This could be difficult, as these systems have contrasting and competing registration processes. Once registered, the researcher must obtain their sample material from the United States’ only licit marijuana farm at the University of Mississippi: a 1.5 acre garden that is cultivated every other year of a low-THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the active hallucinogen in cannabis) quantity strand which is of poor standard for laboratory testing. As such, cannabis research has suffered in this country.
In addition, the Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances mandates that signatories establish criminal penalties for recreational use of a controlled, scheduled substance. Signatories can leave both conventions to legalize marijuana or any other drug, but a full withdrawal from both conventions would be needed. The U.S. has traditionally opposed this.
Reform to the schedules are equally opposed by the U.S., the conventions’ biggest sponsors by bureaucratic barriers (the conventions would have to be amended by a full committee of all 53 Commission on Narcotic Drugs members) and by the International Narcotics Control Board.
The future of marijuana in America
Last Tuesday, Maricopa County, Arizona — one of the most conservative counties in one of the most conservative states — was ordered in Arizona Superior Court to enforce the state’s 2010 Arizona Medical Marijuana Act.
The winds are changing about America’s drug policy.
There is no easy answer out of the quagmire the federal government now faces. The government must enforce its drug laws on the book, or risk being found in violation of treaty. At the same time, the people have overwhelmingly rejected the government’s assessment that marijuana is dangerous.
The answer may be found in Portugal.
In 2001, Portugal decriminalized personal use and possession of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, LSD and other street drugs. Instead of prison time, drug violations (possession of quantities equaling less than 10 days of personal use of a drug) are handled administratively with mandatory therapy and fines. Larger possession cases still risk prison time.
The results have been startling. The number of new HIV cases from sharing needles has bottomed out. The number of street overdoses dropped in half. Drug abuse treatment has doubled. The lifetime marijuana use for Portugal for those over 15 is the lowest in Europe at 10 percent. That is almost a quarter of the U.S.’ rate of 39.8 percent.
The results have been so impressive that Spain and Italy are now following Portugal’s lead.
What is needed is bold and decisive leadership on this issue. The United States must be willing to do what is not politically conservative or easy in order to satisfy the needs and wants of the people. Thomas Jefferson once said, “The will of the people is the only legitimate foundation of any government, and to protect its free expression should be our first object.”
It’s curious how a law that came to be because of blatant lies and racial inundations is so vigilantly defended now, despite evidence that suggests that drinking or smoking tobacco is more detrimental than marijuana use.
The nation must answer if the people’s will is its first obligation.
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