“I don’t think [marijuana] is more dangerous than alcohol,” President Obama recently said in an interview with the New Yorker.
He went on to talk about how pot was actually less dangerous than alcohol for the individual consumer, drawing from his own personal pot usage during his childhood—“I remember when BuzzFeed was just something I did in college around 2 a.m,” he memorably joked at the 2013 White House Correspondents Dinner—but he stressed that pot was “not something [he] encourages.”
When asked about his plan for marijuana in the remaining three years of his second term, Obama discussed rectifying the current laws that unfairly punish what he views as an activity “some of the folks who are writing those laws have probably done.” Yet just two days later, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney reiterated that Obama’s stance on the legality of marijuana has not changed, and that the current classification of marijuana as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 is not going to be altered.
While I applaud President Obama’s move toward reducing the harsh penalties slapped upon a victimless, non-violent crime, I am perplexed by his refusal to change marijuana’s current schedule status. In fact, the entire drug classification system is archaic, unscientific, and rather harmful.
The Controlled Substances Act, signed into law by Richard Nixon, classifies certain drugs into one of five “schedules,” each with a varying set of criteria, ordered in descending severity. A Schedule I drug is defined as a “substance [that] has a high potential for abuse … has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States,” and for which there exists no “accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.”
As the schedule number increases, the potential for abuse is supposed to decrease and the perceived physical and psychological dependencies are judged less severe—increasing the likelihood for medical use of the drugs.
Hopefully, many issues are already apparent. Primarily, why are drugs such as marijuana, LSD (acid), and MDMA (ecstasy) classified as Schedule I? Potential medical usage alone is enough to bump a drug from Schedule I to Schedule II.
For decades, researchers have known of the beneficial psychiatric effects of LSD as well as its anxiety-reducing and alcoholism-fighting properties. Recent research into MDMA has yielded promising results in controlling substance abuse and treating post-traumatic stress disorder. Twenty states, from Alaska to Washington, have approved medical marijuana usage for reasons such as chronic pain relief, nausea reduction, and possible anti-tumor effects. This is not even to mention the fact that studies have shown both LSD and marijuana to be less addictive, psychologically and physiologically, than alcohol.
The current CSA schedule for drugs is broken. A glance at the history of how drugs have been classified is enough to show that the system is far from flawless. When the CSA was first created, marijuana was put in Schedule I as a temporary measure simply due to the lack of rigorous scientific study into its effects.
President Nixon then created the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse—commonly called the Shafer Commission after its chairman—to extensively study marijuana and its health impacts. Two years later, in 1972, Raymond Shafer delivered a report titled “Marihuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding,” which concluded after widespread study that marijuana had “little proven danger of physical or psychological harm” and that decriminalization of the drug was not only strongly recommended but also possibly constitutionally required. Nixon ignored all recommendations from the commission. The current classification of marijuana is, in every sense of the word, a mistake.
The impact of these incorrect classifications goes far past the wants of recreational drug users and their weekend activities. These drugs, with their aforementioned medicinal usages, could aid millions who are suffering from pain and various psychiatric disorders in the United States alone.
However, with their current legal statuses, not only are the drugs illegal to use medicinally by federal law, but research is also extremely difficult to conduct due to a lack of federal funding and the difficulty obtaining legal licenses for human trials. In fact, the director of the Drug Enforcement Agency’s job description states that he or she “shall ensure that no Federal funds … shall be expended for any study … of a substance listed in Schedule I.”
I urge President Obama, along with Congress, to publicly recognize the flaws within the CSA and to remedy them as soon as possible. Multiple solutions are available. The simplest to implement would be to address the overwhelming scientific evidence on the benefits of various drugs such as marijuana, LSD, and MDMA, and reschedule them appropriately.
A more ideal, albeit more complex, solution would be to understand that not all drugs can be pigeonholed into a rigid three-pronged classification and allow for drugs to exist outside of the CSA schedule under more specialized laws.
This country needs to inject some sense into its drug laws. With an understanding president and unprecedented public support in the states, that time is now.
Alan Y. Wang ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is an economics concentrator in Kirkland House.
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Harvard Today: March 13, 2014
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