In a recent interview, President Obama downplayed the hazard posed by marijuana, declaring the drug no more dangerous than alcohol and contrasting it with the graver risk presented by “harder drugs” like cocaine and methamphetamine. And in a letter sent Wednesday, 18 Democratic members of Congress agreed, urging the president to put his money where his mouth is and direct the attorney general to reclassify the drug under federal law to reflect its lower risk factor.
“You said that you don’t believe marijuana is any more dangerous than alcohol: a fully legalized substance, and believe it to be less dangerous ‘in terms of its impact on the individual consumer.’ This is true,” explained the letter, which was spearheaded by Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore. “Marijuana, however, remains listed in the federal Controlled Substances Act at Schedule I, the strictest classification, along with heroin and LSD. This is a higher listing than cocaine and methamphetamine, Schedule II substances that you gave as examples of harder drugs. This makes no sense.”
The lawmakers bemoaned the “lives and resources” that are “wasted on enforcing harsh, unrealistic, and unfair marijuana laws.” They also noted that Schedule I drugs have no recognized medical use, a stipulation that disregards “both medical evidence and the laws of nearly half of the states that have legalized medical marijuana.”
Moreover, they added, the classification of marijuana as a Schedule I drug means marijuana businesses in states where the drug is legal “cannot deduct business expenses from their taxes or take tax credits” under the federal tax code.
For those reasons and others, Blumenauer and his colleagues urged the president to instruct Attorney General Eric Holder “to delist or classify Marijuana in a more appropriate way, at the very least eliminating it from Schedule I or II.”
The lawmakers’ request notwithstanding, it’s not clear that the Justice Department is willing to intervene in drug policy by reclassifying marijuana. At a congressional hearing last week, Michael Botticelli, the deputy director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said that despite the president’s recent public statements, the “Department of Justice’s responsibility to enforce the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged.”
The administration has been “consistent in its opposition to attempts to legalize marijuana and other drugs,” Botticelli told the House Oversight Committee’s Government Operations subcommittee.
But despite the inertia of the federal bureaucracy, it’s clear that attitudes and statutes concerning marijuana are in a remarkable state of flux, changing more rapidly than government regulators may be prepared to handle.
In a CBS News poll released last month, 51 percent of Americans said marijuana should be legalized for recreational use, while 44 percent disagreed. That result, which tracked closely with other recent polls on the question, marked the first time a CBS News survey reflected majority support for legalization.
And in a watershed moment that seems to have catalyzed the national conversation about marijuana policy, Colorado and Washington state legalized pot for recreational use in 2012 election referenda. Since then, a handful of states have indicated they may follow suit.
Last Tuesday, the Washington, D.C. city council lent its preliminary approval to a bill that would decriminalize marijuana in the district, reducing the penalty for possession of small amounts of the drug to a $25 citation. To be enacted, the proposal must be passed once more by the council and approved by D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray.
Congress would then have 30 days to block the measure by passing a resolution “disapproving” of it – a process that could throw into stark relief the disconnect between federal and municipal laws on marijuana use, if lawmakers choose to dive into the contentious debate.
While Congress has generally deferred to the D.C. government in recent years, there is a history of federal attempts to stymie the district’s marijuana laws – in 1998, the D.C. council approved medical marijuana use, but it was another decade before Congress allowed that decision to move forward.
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