In 1936, an American propaganda film was released to the public, notoriously titled Reefer Madness. The story centers around the melodramatic events that ensue when high school students are lured by dealers to try marijuana. Which leads to a hit and run accident, to manslaughter, suicide, attempted rape and descent into madness. It’s like Breaking Bad without the meth.
“Public enemy No. 1”
The American public is far less naïve about marijuana use today, evident in the thriving pot subculture that exists in contemporary society. Nonetheless, for nearly half a century it has remained illegal in the United States on a federal level. Cannabis is classified as a Schedule 1 narcotic under federal law. It is deemed to have “a high potential for abuse and no legitimate medical uses”.
In early July 2011, the federal government ruled (once again) that marijuana has no accepted medicinal purposes. The decision marks the third time in over three decades that the reclassification of cannabis has failed. The first request was filed in 1972 and denied 17 years later. The second was filed in 1995 and denied in 2001. Both decisions were appealed, but the courts ultimately sided with the federal government.
Regardless of failed legislature, mainstream opinion of marijuana has shifted ten-fold. A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in March 2013 found that 52% of participants supported legalization opposed to 45%. Not since 1969 has a majority been reached in favor of legalization. U.S. public support for legalizing marijuana was fixed in the 25% range from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, but support jumped to 31% in 2000 and has continued to grow throughout the decade (Gallup). In fact, support has risen steadily by 11% since 2010.
Support for legalization increased during the 70s. And then Ronald Reagan happened.
Marijuana is like the boyfriend a girl brings home to meet her parents for the first time. Of course, the parents are apprehensive of him [the parents, in this case, being the federal government]. It doesn’t matter if she swears, “He’s really great, you just don’t know him like I do,” Mom and Dad refuse to believe he’s good enough for their daughter [the American people]. She’s alone, awake at night, wondering, “Why can’t they see what I see in him?” They are cursed by forbidden love, forced to live their lives in secrecy. It’s tragic enough to be Shakespearean.
What legalization advocates find most infuriating about the classification of cannabis is the pure hypocrisy behind it. Alcohol and tobacco (both legal) demonstrate the exact characteristics of a Schedule 1 narcotic: a.) A high potential for abuse, and b.) No legitimate medical uses. Alcohol is linked to 50,000 deaths a year, which pales in comparison to tobacco: 400,000. I believe those numbers are reflective of “abuse”.
FDA-approved prescription drugs also display a “high potential for abuse” coupled with a higher risk of overdose than alcohol or tobacco. Drug overdose death rates in the United States have more than tripled since 1990 and have never been higher. In 2008, more than 36,000 people died from drug overdoses (avg. 100/day) (CDC).
The misuse and abuse of prescription painkillers was responsible for more than 475,000 emergency department visits in 2009, a number that nearly doubled in just five years. (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration)
In contrast, there has never been a documented human fatality from overdosing on tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) (cannabis) in its natural form (“Cannabinoid analgesia” Pharmacology & Therapeutics). Marijuana, in its natural form, is non-toxic, virtually impossible to overdose on. One estimate for humans indicates that about 1,500 pounds would have to be smoked within 14 minutes (New England Journal of Medicine).
Above all, cannabis has proven, in contrast to its classification as a Schedule 1 drug, to clearly possess a multitude of medicinal purposes.
Benefits include the use of treatment in various conditions: cancer, HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, anorexia nervosa, Crohn’s disease, epilepsy, anxiety, depression, insomnia, migraines, and chronic pain. “No legitimate medical uses”?
In addition, studies indicate that THC has an “anti-cholinesterase” effect. Anti-cholinesterase is a chemical compound that inhibits the acetylcholinesterase enzyme from breaking down “acetylcholine”, thereby increasing the functionality of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. The function of acetylcholine in the brain relates to the nervous system. Specifically, sensory perception and motor skills. In layman’s terms, THC has the ability to promote elasticity in neurotransmission. This may implicate it as a potential treatment for Alzheimer’s, Dementia, and Myasthenia Gravis (all severely debilitating neurological disorders). This research also helps debunk the widely-held stereotypical belief that marijuana kills brain cells (it doesn’t).
Recently, Dr. Sanjay Gupta of CNN reversed his long-standing objection to medical marijuana after extensively researching the benefits in patients across the country. The byproduct of his research is a documentary, titled: “Weed”. Accompanying this documentary, Dr. Gupta wrote an open apology concerning his stance on medical marijuana:
“I am here to apologize. I apologize because I didn’t look hard enough, until now. I didn’t look far enough. I didn’t review papers from smaller labs in other countries doing some remarkable research, and I was too dismissive of the loud chorus of legitimate patients whose symptoms improved on cannabis.
Instead, I lumped them with the high-visibility malingerers, just looking to get high. I mistakenly believed the Drug Enforcement Agency listed marijuana as a Schedule 1 narcotic because of sound scientific proof. Surely, they must have quality reasoning as to why marijuana is in the category of the most dangerous drugs that have “no accepted medicinal use and a high potential for abuse”.
They didn’t have the science to support that claim, and I now know that when it comes to marijuana neither of those things are true. It doesn’t have a high potential for abuse and there are very legitimate medical applications. In fact, sometimes marijuana is the only thing that works.” -Dr. Sanjay Gupta
A focal point of the documentary is Charlotte Figi, a 6-year-old girl from Colorado who was diagnosed with Dravet Syndrome as an infant. Dravet syndrome, also known as Severe Myoclonic Epilepsy of Infancy (SMEI), is a rare and catastrophic form of intractable epilepsy that begins in infancy. According to Dr. Gupta, “[Charlotte] started having seizures soon after birth. By age 3, she was having 300 a week, despite being on seven different medications.” He adds, “Medical marijuana has calmed her brain, limiting her seizures to 2 or 3 per month.“
Dr. Gupta’s credibility as a neurosurgeon and his subsequent endorsement is appreciated. But it’s also understandably frustrating to those who advocated for years–claiming the same facts–despite being systematically ignored and undermined by the federal government.
A third precursor to being classified as a “Schedule 1” is: a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision. However, the effective dose of THC is at least 1000 times lower than the estimated lethal dose; this means the amount it takes a person to feel the effects of cannabis is one thousand times lower than what it would take for them to overdose. This is measured by a “therapeutic ratio”. Marijuana has a therapeutic ratio of 1000:1. By comparison, the ratio of alcohol is 100 times less: 10:1. Heroin is 6:1. (“Comparison of acute lethal toxicity of commonly abused psychoactive substances” Addiction)
Using cannabis is no different than drinking a glass of wine with dinner or smoking a cigarette during your work break. The only difference is, people aren’t incarcerated for the latter. The reality of modern-day prohibition is evident in the heavy price that we–the people–have paid since its inception. In 2009 alone, approximately 850,000 Americans were arrested on marijuana charges (more than all violent crimes combined, i.e. rape, murder, assault). 88% of people convicted were charged with only minor possession–a misdemeanor (30% were under the age of 19). Taxpayers are left spending an estimated $10 billion/year to enforce marijuana prohibition (NORML).
In America, there is still no legally controlled market for marijuana. Dealing and buying is most commonly accomplished through the underground black market, which is widespread and overwhelmingly successful. In a 2012 report titled, “Marijuana Production in the United States,” by marijuana policy researcher Jon Gettman, the author cites marijuana as the top cash crop in 12 states and among the top three cash crops in 30 others. The study estimates that marijuana production exceeds the combined value of corn ($23.3 billion) and wheat ($7.5 billion). It’s difficult to estimate an annual market price for the entire U.S., considering most transactions are unregulated and illegal. However, estimates place it anywhere from $10 billion to $120 billion annually.
The price of marijuana per state: Top-producing states according to DEA search and seizures are California, Hawaii, Kentucky, Oregon, Tennessee, Washington, and West Virginia.
Overall, in contrast to it’s classification as a Schedule 1, cannabis displays less evidence of abuse than it’s legal predecessors, more evidence of medical benefits, and financial opportunity for a subpar economy (e.g. increased state revenue as well as job creation). So, despite all the evidence, why does cannabis remain illegal on a national scale? What is the real impetus behind prohibition? It’s easy to point fingers and place blame on the DEA. But this a common misconception. Yes, the DEA enforce the laws that are already in place, contributing to the failed policies of the drug war. But the real reason why enforcement of marijuana laws still exist, can be blamed entirely on a separate culprit.
The pharmaceutical industry has been–and continues to be–by far the most profitable of all businesses in the U.S. In 2006, the global market raked in $643 billion. The U.S. accounts for more than half of the entire market (11 out of 19 of the top grossing pharmaceutical companies are American). According to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, pharmaceutical companies spent $900 million on anti-marijuana lobbying between 1998 and 2005, more than any other industry in America. During the same period, they donated $90 million to federal candidates and political parties, giving approximately three times as much to Republicans as to Democrats. This is particularly noteworthy, considering the Republican Party routinely supports prohibition with a strict, conservative, anti-drug agenda.
According to the 2013 Pew Research Poll, only 37% of Republicans supported marijuana legalization, opposed to 59% of Democrats in favor and 60% of Independents in favor. The one issue Democrats and Republicans seem to agree on is whether or not “government efforts to enforce marijuana laws cost more than they’re worth”. On average, regardless of party affiliation, 72% agree. When Democrats and Republicans openly agree on something, it’s a testament to legitimacy.
The FDA’s motives are illustrated by the success of their top-selling product. In 2008, antipsychotic medication became the single top-selling therapeutic class of drugs at $14 billion a year in the U.S. alone. Antipsychotics are a group of tranquilizing drugs used to treat psychiatric conditions; the most commonly prescribed medication in the U.S. Coincidentally, many of these drugs are the same used to treat several conditions cannabis would treat if it were decriminalized. Simply put, legalizing marijuana would be a threat to the profit margin of the American drug industry.
In 2009, prescriptions written for antipsychotics totaled 20 million. That amounts to nearly 1 in 15 Americans. In an article for Al-Jazeera, Marcia Angell, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, points out that a study the same year showed that 18 of the 20 psychiatrists who wrote the APA’s (American Psychiatry Association) most recent clinical guidelines for treating depression, bipolar disorders, and schizophrenia, had financial ties to drug companies, whether through research grants or stock holdings. This seems like an egregious conflict of interest. Yet, it is perfectly legal. Not only do pharmaceutical companies pay doctors to speak on behalf of their drugs, they pay sales representatives based on the number of prescriptions written by doctors. Their not focused on curing the most people. Their focused on selling the most drugs. That’s not an opinion. That’s a fact.
The over-prescribing of medications is compounded by the nature of psychiatric diagnoses. They’re primarily subjective. That is, therapists make a diagnosis through the process of observation. The lack of biological tests for mental disorders makes psychiatry especially vulnerable to industry influence. It doesn’t help that we are constantly expanding the criteria for mental illness, so that nearly everyone has one. Expanding the variety of diagnoses leads to a cornucopia of new, relevant drugs. As Marcia Angell puts it, “Psychiatrists are in the pocket of industry.”
Consider the pharmaceutical industry as the kingpin of the American drug market. It’s bad for business to be competing with cannabis: a potential medicine that treats an array of psychiatric conditions, with little to no side effects. This is reinforced by the fact that the drug industry’s top-selling products (anti-psychotics/painkillers) are used to treat the same conditions that cannabis would treat, if legal.
What is most threatening to the pharmaceutical industry is that marijuana is all-natural. More importantly, it is most effective in it’s natural form. Cannabis can be grown by anyone with seed, soil, water and sunlight. Cultivation relies on farming. It relies on investment in agriculture. If marijuana laws are reformed, cannabis would be a contender. Imagine: an organic, sustainable medicine in America. That’s potentially stiff competition. The process doesn’t require chemicals nor does it require synthetic manufacturing by technicians in a lab. There is no need for pharmaceutical companies to produce and distribute it. Additionally, there is no legal parameter for patenting something that grows in the ground (unless you’re Monsanto). In summary, there is no money to be made by the drug industry. Although, that hasn’t stopped them from trying.
Synthesized THC is known as dronabinol. It is available in the United States as a prescription drug under the generic name Marinol. It is classified as a Schedule III, available by prescription, considered to be “non-narcotic and to have a low risk of physical or mental dependence.” However, Marinol was cited by the FDA as being responsible for 4 deaths in a study of 17 different FDA-approved drugs between January 1, 1997 to June 30, 2005 (The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) (SAMHSA). Four deaths in eight years might seem negligible to some. But reconsider the fact that the “toxicity” of natural THC has failed to report killing anyone, ever.
A list of side effects for the prescription drug Marinol:
- Clumsiness or unsteadiness
- false sense of well-being
- trouble with thinking
- Changes in mood
- fast or pounding heartbeat
- feelings of unreality
- loss of memory
- mental depression
- nervousness or anxiety
- problems with memory
Millions of Americans remain comfortably numb, hooked on FDA-approved drugs (Oxycontin is practically synthetic heroin). The pharmaceutical industry makes billions annually, pushing pills toward a vague definition of psychiatric disorders ranging from hypochondria to restless leg syndrome. On the other end of the spectrum, nearly one million Americans a year are incarcerated for a plant that grows in the ground.
Although medical marijuana has made progress on a state level, the medicinal dispensary system is being widely abused. In Seattle, there are currently more weed dispensaries than Starbucks. In Denver, there are more weed dispensaries than Starbucks, liquor stores, and public schools. In California, a medical marijuana card can be purchased with ease. As Esquire’s John Richardson puts it, “[In California] the law is nothing but a fig leaf that can be purchased with an $80 medical exam… It’s a joke. And it’s not good policy to make the law into a joke.”
Richardson aptly describes the hypocrisy of medical marijuana policy in CA: “California has the worst of both worlds. Marijuana is essentially legal, but people still go to jail for it and the state still spends millions of dollars in police time, court costs, and prison cells for no reason. It’s stupid. There’s no other word for it, no rational justification. We are paying for our hypocrisy with wasted taxes and the wreckage of other people’s lives.”
Meanwhile, most non-residents are still out-of-luck:
America’s prohibition of marijuana offers a sentiment that suggests: “Why heal people if we can’t make profit?” Anti-drug law enforcement is rooted in hypocrisy, furthering an increasingly counterproductive dichotomy between state and federal regulations.
If we legalize, we can begin helping people—all people—who actually need it. We can stop placing stigmas on recreational users and stop filling prisons with harmless offenders. Collectively, we can come to accept the overwhelming truth over hypocrisy.
UPDATE: Support for marijuana legalization spikes to 58% (Washington Post)
Uruguay becomes first nation to fully legalize marijuana (Reuters)
GSK announces it will no longer pay doctors for drug endorsements (WSJ)