Yesterday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the number of deaths from overdoses of legal prescription painkillers had more than tripled over a decade, killing a shocking 15,000 people in 2008 — more than died from heroin and cocaine overdoses combined. This “epidemic” of pain killer abuse is troubling in its own right and demands public policy answers, but it also helps to underscore the incongruity of the current drug policy.
The report comes as a growing number of states and the federal government debate the prohibition of marijuana. Just this week, the White House rejected several marijuana legalization petitions.
Marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance, giving the highest level of restriction possible. Painkillers like OxyCotin are Schedule II, while others like Vicodin are Schedule III. Yet while these less restricted drugs killed 15,000 people last year alone, “There are virtually no reports of fatal cannabis overdose in humans,” a widely-cited study from the National Institute of Mental Health found. Studies on animals have found lethal doses practically impossible to achieve, as a human physically could not consume the required volume.
As spelled out in the Controlled Substance Act, there are three requirements for Schedule I classifications, according to the DEA:
Substances in this schedule have a high potential for abuse, have no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and there is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.
Of course, 16 states and the District of Columbia now recognize medicinal benefits of marijuana and have established safety standards. And while there is no doubt that marijuana has the potential for abuse, advocates say it is not high enough — on par with cocaine and heroin — to merit Schedule I status, and no higher than prescription drugs, the danger of which the CDC report clearly demonstrates.
In fact, when marijuana was initially classified as a Schedule I drug in 1970, its placement was intended to be only provisional pending the findings of the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, also known as the Shafer Commission, as it was led by then-Pennsylvania Gov. Raymond Shafer (R). Two years later, the commission released its findings, concluding: “Neither the marihuana user nor the drug itself can be said to constitute a danger to public safety.” Nonetheless, the Nixon administration did nothing and let the drug remain classified as Schedule I.
In a letter sent just last week, nine congressmen, including Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (CA) — called on President Obama to reschedule marijuana as either a Schedule II or III drug — the same status as Vicodin or Oxycontin. Reps. Barney Frank (D-MA) and Ron Paul (R-TX) have also introduced a bill to do just that.