A fleeting change in pot policy?

Today’s topic: Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. has said federal drug officers will end their raids on pot dispensaries in California, where medical marijuana is legal. But this is only the Obama administration’s policy, and the next president could just as easily resume Drug Enforcement Administration raids. Is there a way for the feds to address this issue that doesn’t subject states and medical marijuana users to the political leanings of different administrations?

Complete Dust-Up: Day 1 | Day 2

Take marijuana off Schedule I
Point: Stephen Gutwillig

The Obama administration has taken an important step to protect patients in the 13 states with medical marijuana laws. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. confirmed last week that his Department of Justice will uphold President Obama’s campaign promise to end Drug Enforcement Administration raids of medical marijuana dispensaries in California. The Bush administration’s DEA unleashed hundreds of commando-style raids that intimidated and terrorized patients, providers and caregivers while undermining the capacity of states to defend popular medical marijuana laws they had enacted since 1996. The Obama White House has ended the reign of terror.

But this cease-fire isn’t enough.

For medical marijuana patients and their advocates, it’s crucial that the Obama administration and Congress acknowledge the value of marijuana as medicine and foster an open, honest discussion about how the federal government can best regulate its use. In particular, the feds should remove marijuana from the list of Schedule I drugs.

The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 created five schedules for all illicit and prescription drugs. Marijuana wound up in Schedule I, defining it as having a high potential for abuse and no acceptable medical use. Placing marijuana under Schedule I federally criminalized its use as a medicine and severely restricted research into its medicinal value. Nonetheless, there is increasing consensus among medical professionals that marijuana provides substantial therapeutic benefits for a number of conditions, including AIDS, hepatitis C, glaucoma, cancer, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and chronic pain.

To date, 13 states have embraced those findings, rejected the inflexible federal position and taken matters into their own hands. The vast majority of those states adopted medical marijuana laws by ballot initiative, many by a landslide. Every state polled has shown a significant majority of voters in favor of legalizing medical marijuana. Within a year, those 13 states may be joined by as many as six others that are considering medical marijuana legislation or initiatives. Quite simply, most Americans -- including our president -- agree that when a loved one is seriously ill, he or she deserves access to medical marijuana if a doctor recommends it.

The placement of marijuana under Schedule I makes no sense for a drug that is being recommended by doctors from Alaska to Vermont. As The Times editorialized Feb. 25, marijuana “is not nearly as addictive or intoxicating as less-restricted Schedule 2 drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine. Moreover, the active ingredient in marijuana, THC, can be sold in pill form as a Schedule 3 drug. So what makes the plant so dangerous?”

The Obama administration has signaled its intention to use a public-health approach to drug policy in general. Medical marijuana is the perfect opportunity to illustrate that sensible new posture. By ending the raids on dispensaries in California, the administration has taken a big step toward protecting Americans who benefit from the medicinal properties of marijuana. But this policy is far too impermanent and leaves far too many Americans outside medical marijuana states unprotected. It’s time to reschedule marijuana and make it available as a medicine to all those in need.

Stephen Gutwillig is California director for the Drug Policy Alliance.

Good job Obama, but medical marijuana should be a federal issue
Counterpoint: Scott Imler

There is little in your post with which to disagree, Stephen. Although the Obama administration’s policy change is good news for legitimate and illegitimate operators alike, it is bittersweet for thousands of patients and dozens of trail-blazing individuals and organizations who, acting in good faith over the last decade, have had their lives wrecked, financially ruined or been imprisoned while awaiting this logical and inevitable development.

While the Bush administration’s commando-style raids have been superbly effective in wiping out the original non-profit and charitable, community-based programs established in the immediate aftermath of Proposition 215’s passage in 1996 -- in some cases with the support of local law enforcement -- they’ve done little to curb the dominance of for-profit, black-market resale operations that constitute the bulk of the burgeoning “medical marijuana” industry.

Despite 20 years of presidential stonewalling by two Bushes and one Clinton (ironically, Ronald Reagan is the only modern president under whom patient access expanded), medical marijuana is no longer an issue to decide, but a problem to solve. Obama’s more nuanced approached to federal enforcement should help combat the reluctance of states and local jurisdictions to meaningfully regulate medical marijuana for fear of federal prosecution.

For this reason, I have some concerns about the federal government’s complete abandonment of the enforcement arena and the potential marginalization of the issue as a provincial matter. I believe that targeted suspensions of DEA enforcement actions against legitimate medical marijuana dispensaries operating in compliance with state law is appropriate. It pushes us toward a more rational federal policy and the regularization of cannabis as a prescription drug available through traditional medicine.

You are also correct, Stephen, in identifying the next logical step for solving the problem nationally -- federal rescheduling. Yes, marijuana is a substance with a high potential for abuse, but it also clearly has medical value, so it must come off Schedule I.

The other benefit of viewing this as a national rather than a state issue is liberating the political dialogue from the vapid confines of “states rights.” We live in the United States of America, not the 50 States of America. There is no reason that a 20-year-old Californian with a storefront and his own letterhead should be laughing all the way to the bank while an AIDS patient in Oklahoma faces 30 years in prison for growing two plants.

If Holder’s announcement is a fulfillment of a campaign promise, there is reason to believe that Obama’s more nuanced statements as a candidate on this issue may still be operative. He could suspend raids on “patients” (as opposed to, say, wholesalers or guerrilla growers who despoil forests in their reckless pursuit of profit), stemming from his belief that medical marijuana is OK so long as it is handled with appropriate controls like any other prescription drug.

As Sen. Dianne Feinstein said at a news conference regarding Proposition 215, “The devil is in the details.” In the case of California Compassionate Use Act of 1996 and its spawn in a dozen others states, the devil is in the context, which we’ll talk about tomorrow.

The Rev. Scott Imler was coauthor of Proposition 215 and founder of the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center, Southern California’s first patient-based medical marijuana cooperative.