Federal Law Treats Marijuana As Worse Than Cocaine, And Obama Says He’s Not Going To Change That

CREDIT: Screenshot from CNN

Even after President Obama’s recent comments that marijuana is not less dangerous than alcohol and that the state legalization measures are an “important move,” he declined to comment Friday on whether he believed the federal government should reclassify the drug from its current status as a dangerous substance with no accepted medical value, and said such a change certainly won’t come from his office.

When asked during an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper whether he would consider changing marijuana’s designation as a Schedule I narcotic, Obama said making that decision is a “job for Congress.” And when Tapper pointed out that the Drug Enforcement Administration has the power to reschedule drugs, Obama said, “It’s – it’s not – it’s not something by ourselves that we start changing. No, there are laws under – undergirding those determinations… ”

In a tweet Wednesday, a spokesman for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy said the attorney general can change the drug’s designation, but that it is “not likely given current science.”

Tapper later asked whether Obama would support a change in the schedule. Obama didn’t respond directly, but cited scientific research in saying, “But the broader point, I stand by my belief, based, I think, on the scientific evidence, that marijuana, for casual users, individual users, is subject to abuse, just like alcohol is and should be treated as a public health problem and challenge.”

The current scheme for classifying controlled substances does not treat marijuana anything like alcohol. While marijuana is listed as Schedule I, the most restrictive of the five designations under the Controlled Substances Act, alcohol and tobacco are not on the schedule at all. Highly addictive and potent drugs, meanwhile, including cocaine, opium poppy, morphine, and codeine, are listed as Schedule II, designated for those drugs that have a high potential for abuse and dependence, but which have “a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States or a currently accepted medical use with severe restrictions.” The synthetic version of THC, known as dronabinol, is listed as Schedule III, even though THC is the ingredient in cannabis that causes psychoactive effects.

Congress, the attorney general, and the DEA all have the mechanisms to change this. The DEA has an internal process for requesting that drugs be rescheduled, but it has repeatedly declined to consider petitions after taking upwards of ten years to review them, reasoning that there is still insufficient research to support a change in classification. The White House is apparently also leaning on claims that there is insufficient research. And when Congress first designated marijuana as Schedule I in 1970, it relied upon a House of Representatives report that recommended the designation at least temporarily “until the completion of certain studies now underway to resolve the issue,” because uncertainty remained about the effects of the drug.

Forty-four years later, there have been many peer-reviewed studies, but very few of sufficient size and scope to satisfy the government, particularly about the drug’s medical benefits. Ironically, this dearth of research is perpetuated by the federal government’s position on marijuana. Federal funding, the lifeblood of academic research, is severely curtailed for large-scale studies of pot, particularly those that aim to study the plant’s potential benefits rather than its potential for abuse, because of the drug’s Schedule I designation. Perhaps even more significantly, the legal access to a supply of marijuana for conducting this research is controlled by one federal agency with a mission to combat drug abuse. And the panel that controls access to the marijuana has delayed and rejected academics’ FDA-approved requests to research some of the most pressing medical marijuana issues, including treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

So the federal government remains in a holding pattern, with Obama refusing to do anything and Congress not expected to make progress anytime soon. One of the bills pending in the House but not introduced in the Senate would end prohibition, which means marijuana would be removed from the Schedules entirely.

Many have pointed to Obama’s recent comments as a reason why he should take executive action to exercise the power he retains to change a policy that is inconsistent with his position. “If the president truly believes what he says about marijuana, he has a moral imperative to make the law match up with his views and the views of the majority of the American people, without delay. He should initiate the long overdue rescheduling of marijuana today,” Marijuana Majority Chairman Tom Angell told ThinkProgress.

But the significance of even Obama’s shift in rhetoric should not be dismissed, doubling down on a position Friday that just a few years ago would have seemed inconceivable. “We’re going to see what happens in the experiments in Colorado and Washington,” he said. “… [T]he incarceration model that we’ve taken particularly around marijuana, does not seem to have produced the kinds of results that we’ve set.”