Since the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, cannabis, also known as marijuana, has been federally classified as a Schedule I drug, meaning that it has no legally accepted medical use and has the same classification as, for example, heroin. Over the last couple of decades, however, that classification has started to be challenged, especially at the state level.
Currently, 13 states have passed some form of legislation allowing the use of medical marijuana. California was the first, passing the Compassionate Use Act in 1996 that legalized medical marijuana and ostensibly set regulations for the production and distribution of the drug. In recent months, New Mexico has begun “breathing life,” to quote an Associated Press report, into its own 2007 legislation that legalized medical marijuana. That New Mexico has taken so long to formalize the systemization of medical marijuana is indicative of a larger national resistance to the notion of legal weed in the United States.
Before further discussion, the fact that marijuana does indeed have undeniable and considerable medical benefits must be made clear. Marijuana is unparalleled in its propensity for alleviating the side effects endured by chemotherapy patients, and in general the drug has well-chronicled benefits for chronic pain relief such as combating migraines and nerve pain in HIV patients. As Dr. Donald Abrams, a cancer specialist at San Francisco General Hospital, said, “I can recommend [this] one drug for all those [pains], instead of writing five different prescriptions.”
In fact, even the American Medical Association, or AMA, agrees with the need to reclassify marijuana. The current classification of marijuana as a Schedule I drug puts it on par with drugs like heroin and LSD, which clearly have no medical use. On November 10, the AMA called for a federal review of marijuana’s status under the Controlled Substances Act, stating its hope for “the goal of facilitating the conduct of clinical research and development of cannabinoid-based medicines, and alternate delivery methods.” The AMA was promptly ignored by the relevant federal authorities.
This dismissal speaks again to the long-standing unwillingness of our nation to enter proper dialogue concerning medical marijuana. The recreational and cultural use of marijuana, most prominently associated with the flowery 70s, has stigmatized the drug to the point where, it can be argued, many are unable to delineate between supporting the legalization of medical marijuana and supporting the legalization of marijuana for, simply put, getting high.
Nevertheless, there is indeed a distinction. Marijuana has scientifically supported medical benefits, ones that are so persuasive that even the AMA felt compelled to call for its reclassification. But marijuana seems doomed by its negative connotations.
To resist the legalization of such a positive social good for reasons extraneous to its inherent medical benefits is simply a fundamentally flawed approach to enacting progress.
Detractors say that there is a high probability that the legalization of marijuana for medical use will lead to rampant abuse. And a Sept. 23, 2007, “60 Minutes” special on California’s notorious “pot shops” seemed to confirm this worry. Essentially, as long as a patient — and this term is used in the loosest fashion imaginable — can convince the doctor that marijuana is necessary to relieve his pain (“You know, all I can do is take my patients’ statements as factual,” said one doctor), he can easily gain access to marijuana.
But this lack of discipline can be partly attributed to the incoherence of medical marijuana’s legalization. The aforementioned “60 Minutes” feature highlighted the blatant conflict between marijuana’s legal status as a medical drug and the virtually arbitrary raids that federal authorities conducted on California’s pot shops. This summer, furthermore, New Hampshire’s governor vetoed medical marijuana legalization, citing its inconsistency with federal regulation. But clearly, the evidence says the current federal regulations are wrong.
Unless the government — and this country — are willing to approach marijuana reasonably, we will not even get the chance to attempt proper systemization of medical marijuana. California’s marijuana policy, the state’s doctors readily admit, is of course not stringent enough, but that does not mean the law needs to swing back to the other extreme.
In New Mexico, then, cautious steps are being taken to define a template for the production and distribution of legal medical marijuana. There are 15 qualifying conditions for medical use of the drug and there are five nonprofit organizations permitted to produce it. Each producer is limited to 95 plants. The success of New Mexico’s scheme is far from guaranteed, but it represents a willingness to at least explore the potential and limitations of a properly regulated system of medical marijuana.
Nobody is denying that marijuana, as a product, has its downsides. Science is not yet sure of its lung cancer-inducing properties as well as its addictive properties. But these risks are analogous to (which, to pre-empt the decriers, does not mean “are equal to”) the risks of other drugs that the federal authorities seem willing to condone — Vicodin and Valium come to mind. Why should marijuana be treated any differently?
What is needed is a paradigm shift, one that allows us to look at marijuana not as some taboo indulgence but as a legitimate medical product. Condoning medical marijuana is not the same as condoning marijuana for other purposes.
To use the words of one of New Mexico’s approved marijuana producers, “The faster we move away from a paranoid drug dealer model to a normal business model, the better it’s going to be [for medical marijuana].” Fortunately for its proponents, medical marijuana seems to have a strong ally in the current administration. Obama’s stance on state legalization, as of February, is that the federal government will no longer interfere in the form of raids and other similar attacks.
But for real change to be enacted, there still needs to be a fundamental rethinking of whether it remains appropriate to oppose medical marijuana based on concerns peripheral to its merit as a medical drug. Until then, the question of how best to maximize its medical usefulness through regulation and systemization remains a theoretical one.
November 19, 2009