U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions may have anticipated little resistance when he sought support from House and Senate Leaders to wage war on states that have legalized cannabis for adult or medical use. In a letter dated May 1, 2017, he urged Congress to reinstate budget appropriations that would authorize the DEA to target offenders of federal marijuana policy in regulation states. Little did he know that, six weeks later, he would face an uphill battle on multiple fronts with new adversaries including a sleeper Congressional bill known as the CARERS Act and a new coalition of marijuana advocates lead by the conservative former Trump advisor, Roger Stone.
Several years in the making, the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States Act (CARERS Act) was first introduced in the House by Representative Steve Cohen (D-TN) as HR 1538 in April, 2015. It had amassed 31 bi-partisan co-sponsors by May last year, when it was sent to a number of committees for review.
In a surprise announcement on June 16, 2017, the CARERS Act was re-introduced in the U.S. Senate by original co-sponsors, Senators Rand Paul (R-KY), Corey Booker (D-NJ) and Kirsten Hillenbrand (D-NY). Two days later, Stone announced the formation of the United States Cannabis Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy with a mission to protect state’s rights to legalize and regulate marijuana.
The announcements must have come as blow to Sessions, who has on numerous occasions in the past voiced strong objections to state legalization measures on the basis that marijuana is a dangerous drug that belongs in Schedule One. He has vowed to reverse Obama Administration policy barring use of Federal funds to prosecute marijuana offenders in states that permit marijuana for adult or medical use.
His letter reiterated those objections in no uncertain terms and called for DOJ authority to carry out his intentions. Sessions expounded upon the danger that state regulation poses to society, naming the “historic drug epidemic” and “potentially long-term uptick in violent crime” due to “foreign traffickers operating under the guise of state laws” as a primary concern.
For reinforcement, Sessions referred to a report issued by the National Institute of Drug Addiction (NIDA) titled Drug Facts on Marijuana to validate his contention that marijuana is a dangerous drug with negative health effects including “psychosis, cognitive impairments, lung infections, [diminished] IQ, substance abuse disorder and addiction.”
Just how dangerous is marijuana?
To those who know and understand the safety, benefits and importance of marijuana to human health, Sessions’ interpretation appears to be misleading, taken out of context and devoid of pertinent facts. As explained in the NIDA report, deleterious effects often coincide with other mitigating factors or underlying health conditions. For example, contaminants such as mold or pesticides (frequently found in illicit marijuana) can cause serious lung damage; smoking any substance can lead to respiratory problems; and children and individuals predisposed to psychosis would likely be advised by their doctors to avoid any psychoactive drug including legally prescribed opiates and alcohol.
In fact, marijuana never caused a single death until it became illegal. Deaths reported to “involve” marijuana are often coincidental, caused by other factors such as gunshot wounds, car accidents or overdosing on other substances used in combination with marijuana. By constrast, legally prescribed synthetic opiates are responsible for hundreds of lethal overdoses reported in emergency rooms every day throughout the U.S. And, unlike alcohol and synthetic prescription drugs, marijuana has no adverse side effects with the possible exception of a somewhat uncomfortable euphoria caused by overconsumption of marijuana with high concentrations of the psychoactive molecule known as THC. Hemp, the non-psychotropic variety of cannabis, contains only traces of THC and has absolutely no adverse side effects at all.
The claim that marijuana has a “high potential for abuse” has also been widely disputed by the medical community. Statistics show that illicit marijuana use has declined significantly since 2010 when state regulation began, with the most prominent decrease among young people, according to NIDA.
Ironically, marijuana has shown to be effective in helping addicts overcome symptoms of withdrawal from opiates and other narcotics. Due to our body’s natural capacity to synthesize cannabinoids, it is physically impossible to overdose on marijuana. Scientists are now beginning to understand that endo-cannabinoid deficiency is a common thread in a number of autoimmune and neurological malfunctions that endanger human health.
Why should marijuana still be illegal? Because the DEA said so.
Sessions is asking Congress to ignore science, undermine state marijuana laws and reverse a hands-off policy established during the Obama Administration. At issue are the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment, which restricted budget appropriations for DEA enforcement of federal medicinal marijuana laws, and a 2013 Executive Order signed by then President Obama directing the Justice Department to place a “low priority” on enforcing marijuana laws against businesses and organizations that comply with state laws. Were Sessions to win this battle, the DEA would be at liberty to threaten entrepreneurs and patients with prosecution regardless of state marijuana laws.
Why is this a good idea? Sessions’ own words suggest that social consequences may be secondary to a more pressing ulterior motive: “It is thus unsurprising that, in the last [Obama] administration, both the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the DEA concluded that ‘marijuana has a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision,’ [according to the] August 2016 Denial of Petition to Initiate Proceedings to Reschedule Marijuana.”
To imply that DHHS and the DEA formed their anti-marijuana position under the Obama administration is misleading. It’s telling, and comes as no surprise given the current administration’s fastidious efforts to erase policy initiated during President Obama’s eight years in office.
Barring that incentive, Congress would be hard-pressed to justify acquiescing to Sessions’ request without losing favor with voters who subscribe to the truth. Although, political aspirations supported by campaign contributions from the big pharma, private prison and alcohol lobbies could, perhaps, explain the repeated refusal of lawmakers to reverse prohibition thus far, despite popular opinion.
It also make sense that the DEA, in the interest of self-preservation, has held fast to its fallacious position since 1971, when the agency was created for the sole purpose of enforcing prohibition. Legalizing marijuana would render the agency mostly obsolete.
However, the reasoning behind the DHHS’s recommendation remains a mystery, presuming its reliance on science and the recommendations of the American Medical Association (AMA), which has voiced strong objections to marijuana prohibition on multiple occasions since Congress surreptitiously passed the first anti-marijuana law in 1942.
Alternative facts are fiction
Marijuana prohibition was founded on a lie initially fabricated by Reefer Madness in the 1930s, and then later signed, sealed and delivered in the Controlled Substances Act by President Nixon, per his own admission. There is consensus among historians that making marijuana illegal was intended to diminish the voting power of minorities and anti-war left who threatened Nixon’s political ambitions. Nearly 50 years later, prohibition remains a partisan issue favoring the right, with deleterious impact squarely on left-leaning minorities. According to the ACLU, minorities living in economically disenfranchised communities are four times more likely than caucasians to be arrested, prosecuted and incarcerated for non-violent marijuana offenses.
Despite the social injustice and evidence of medical viability, DOJ and Sessions are intent to perpetuate the arcane policy on the basis that, “Marijuana has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.”
Perhaps it would have been more truthful to say that, In the United States, marijuana has no medical applications that are currently accepted by the U.S. Government. Although, not entirely so considering this irony: the U.S. Government owns the patent for use of marijuana as a neuro-protectant and anti-inflammatory medicine.
In an article in Scientific American, journalist David Downs summed up the hypocrisy of the Federal marijuana policy: “It has come to be insulated by a byzantine, Kafkaesque bureaucratic process now impervious to the opinion of the majority of U.S. doctors—and to a vast body of scientific knowledge…”
The AMA and Institute of Medicine are among numerous medical, legal and scientific entities that have previously filed DEA petitions to re- or de-schedule marijuana. To date, all petitions have been denied, including those made internally.
In 1988, the DEA’s own administrative judge Francis Young petitioned for rescheduling based on research available at that time. In a public statement, he said, “marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man. By any measure of rational analysis marijuana can be safely used within a supervised routine of medical care.” His request was also denied.
The latest petition filed in 2016 was denied a result of recommendations set forth by the DHHS and DEA, presumably based on information provided by NIDA, the bureaucracy charged with investigating harms of Controlled Substances.
Late last year, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) analyzed hundreds of peer-reviewed articles and clinical studies and concluded that cannabis, indeed, has multiple legitimate medical applications. It also emphasized that more clinical, double-blind human studies are warranted and necessary – if only the Federal government would remove barriers to research.
Who benefits from the War On Drugs?
Barring ignorance, self-preservation or ulterior motive, there is simply no rational justification to spend more than $3.6 Billion per year since 1971 – at taxpayer expense – to perpetuate a war on a harmless plant.
Prohibition has enriched opportunity for cartels and drug traffickers to siphon billions of dollars from the U.S. economy into the black market overseas. It is now understood that the recent “uptick” in trafficking of illicit drugs is at least partly due to the DEA’s crackdown on “pill mill” doctors and new limitations on patient prescriptions. With opiate addiction at an all-time high, the limitations have bolstered demand for counterfeit pills and heroin, the next best fix, readily available on the street.
Hundreds of thousands of law enforcement officers concur, according to Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP). Formerly known as Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, LEAP is just one of many credible organizations advocating for the full legalization of marijuana. It boasts a membership of more than 150,000 members comprised of current and former prosecutors, judges and law enforcement officers from civic police, and military police forces, the DEA, FBI, CIA and RTF who attest that legalization would make our cities safer and save millions of dollars in law enforcement.
And yet, Sessions maintains, “I believe it would be unwise for Congress to restrict the discretion of the Department (of Justice) to fund particular prosecutions.” Unwise? Let’s face it, the War On Drugs has caused more harm than good.
Millions of people have spent years in prison and lost their families, jobs and voting rights because they chose to self-medicate with a harmless plant. Meanwhile, legally prescribed opiates have caused millions of needless deaths and created a nation of addicts, many who became that way following advice of their doctors. Locking them up doesn’t solve the problem. Drug treatment programs for users would cost merely a fraction of imprisonment — and yield far healthier results for everyone concerned.
“Cracking down on drug crimes with harsher sentences isn’t going to make us safer,” said LEAP executive director, Maj. Neill Franklin (Ret), a 34-year veteran of the Maryland State and Baltimore Police Forces. “We already tried that. Drug war violence will diminish when we move the market into the legal sector and treat drug use as a health issue.”
In a legal battle with the Department of Justice over the DEA restrictions (U.S. vs McIntosh, 2016), the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld states’ rights to self-regulate drug policy. In his letter, Sessions objects to the ruling, which protects citizens from Federal prosecution when they abide by their own state’s marijuana laws. “As a result, in the Ninth Circuit, many individuals and organizations that are operating in violation of the [CSA] and causing harm in their communities may invoke the rider to thwart prosecution.”
On the one hand, Sessions argues that states should not have the right to regulate marijuana because under Federal law it is still an illegal controlled substance and, therefore, citizens using marijuana for any reason in those states should be prosecuted. On the other hand, he draws attention to the 9th Circuit Appellate Court ruling, which supersedes DEA policy and protects citizens in those states from Federal prosecution.
Therefore, even if Congress were to grant Sessions’ request, the DEA would have no jurisdiction to pursue prosecution for marijuana-related activity in those states unless a subject is acting in violation of state law.
Passage of the CARERS Act would, in part, resolve the discrepancy between Federal and State policy.
Can the CARERS Act stop the Reefer Madness?
It is becoming more and more difficult for Congressional leaders to ignore the truth: Marijuana is saving lives and doesn’t belong in Schedule I. States that have adopted marijuana regulation are creating jobs and realizing economic upsides that benefit education, healthcare, infrastructure and communities. They are also experiencing a drop in drug-related crimes.
Incidentally the same phenomenon occurred when alcohol prohibition ended; turf-wars came to a screeching halt and bootleggers became legitimized franchises that make significant contributions to the national GDP. Alcohol consumption has remained an acceptable pastime of American culture ever since, despite its dangers. Marijuana is far safer than alcohol, and has multiple benefits beyond the social.
It is only a matter of time before 31 states follow the lead of states now reaping the social and economic rewards of marijuana regulation. More than 79 percent of Americans are now in favor of cannabis for medical use, with more than 52 percent favoring adult-use legalization. In a recent survey of 1,500 physicians, 56 percent support legalization and, of those, 80 percent of oncologists say it’s a necessary for cancer patients. While the jury is still out with respect to the White House position, Trump advisor Roger Stone is just one of a number of conservatives now campaigning to protect states’ rights, breaking ranks with the DOJ and the majority of GOP lawmakers who are still against legalization. With fewer allies and waning public support for the marijuana war, Sessions’ agenda faces an uphill battle.
“Attorney General Sessions can expect a backlash,” Franklin continued, adding, “Americans do not want an escalation of archaic drug war policies.”
Empirically speaking, Congressional leaders would be wise deny Sessions’ request and end to the War On Drugs — if not for the best interest of their constituents, then at least for self-preservation. Those who choose to support his agenda may likely find themselves out of a job when their terms are up.
As with alcohol prohibition, the War On Drugs will one day be seen as a dark era in American history. Those who choose to embrace the truth will not only gain favor with a majority of Americans who now believe marijuana should be legal, they will build a legacy that will be remembered with respect and, in the end, emerge victorious.
U.S. Attorney General's Letter to Congressional Leaders
About the CARERS Act