Recent voting in Colorado and Washington exposes a striking discrepancy in the national legal status of marijuana. Under current federal law, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I Controlled Substance, which places it in the same category as heroin, peyote, LSD and Ecstasy. To be qualified as a Schedule I Controlled Substance, a drug must have no currently accepted medical use in the United States, a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse.
The clause regarding medical benefits should immediately eliminate cannabis from this schedule, because numerous studies have proven its medical effectiveness, from glaucoma to pain relief to hunger stimulation during chemotherapy and in AIDS patients. For these precise reasons, 18 states and the District of Columbia have legalized the use of medical marijuana: It is a viable alternative to prescription medication that can often cause side effects more detrimental than the illness they are treating. For federal law to say that cannabis has no accepted medical use is to contradict the work of many doctors, studies and the actions of many state legislatures.
As for the second clause, it is surprising that a substance commonly used without medical supervision and that has reported zero deaths under current records would be deemed unsafe when used by patients under the care of a physician. Many of the drugs classified alongside marijuana would prove to be dangerous even with such care. It borders on absurd to say that a person using cannabis is at the same risk of dying as a person injecting heroin or using methamphetamines. No side effects of marijuana suggest a person is fatally at risk while using it.
The clause regarding the potential for abuse is more arguable. Although marijuana contains no addictive chemicals, it is regarded as a possible habit-forming substance. It can be difficult to define abuse in a legal sense, but the Virginia government defines substance abuse as “the chronic use of any chemical substance used with the intention of altering states of body or mind for other than medically warranted purposes,” while the World Health Organization sees the use of a substance as abuse if it affects a user’s daily life in a negative manner. But even those arguing that marijuana might be addictive would have difficulty making the case that it is more addictive than widely available drugs, including alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, over-the-counter sleep remedies, etc. And with the definition set forth by Virginia, any use of alcohol beyond a glass of red wine every once in a while with dinner or taking an extra aspirin for a severe headache would constitute substance abuse. Marijuana may be considered a habit-forming substance, but to say that it has a high potential for abuse seems to be a stretch.
One need not argue for marijuana’s widespread legalization to recognize that it should be reconsidered, and the schedule of the drug should be changed. There are many avenues to take that could lead to the reconsideration of the schedule of marijuana, but since the Drug Enforcement Administration is the agency that defines and classifies different schedules of drugs, an effort toward them would be the most fruitful. Recently Americans for Safe Access, an organization formed in 2002 for the safe and legal access to medical marijuana, has asked the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia to force the DEA to reconsider the schedule of marijuana. While legal avenues are useful, it would be best if the federal government could take a page from the referenda in Colorado and Washington and formulate its drug policy with at least some democratic input from the American people.