An Easy Policy Fix: Jeff Sessions Should Finally Reschedule Cannabis

Photo Credit: Greg Nash

If there is one event that best illustrates the need to reform our nation’s pot laws, it would be this past weekend’s National Cannabis Festival (NCF) in Washington, D.C. If there was ever a day to introduce legislative reforms, it was April 20 – which is exactly the date Sen Schumer (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation to decriminalize marijuana.

April 20th is the unofficial holiday embodying the free market and serving as a call-to-action for citizens. Advocates gathered to celebrate recent policy successes – 29 states and the District of Columbia have some form of legal pot – and to organize for upcoming challenges. It’s not just a party, it’s civic society at work.

One of the biggest obstacles to federal change, however, is the scheduling of cannabis.

Schumer’s new bill decriminalizes cannabis on the federal level. If successful, this bill would remove the schedule I classification of cannabis, a huge step toward nationwide legalization. Events like the NCF and Sen. Schumer’s bill raise important questions, especially regarding the impediments to reform. The answer doesn’t lie far from the festival groups – down the street at the Department of Justice.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently positioned himself as one of the biggest opponents of legalize cannabis when he ended the policy allowing states to experiment with legal pot. Although such a move isn’t surprising from Sessions, his regressive approach toward the war on drugs is a dangerous path. It demonstrates poor public policy and platforms primitive rhetoric.

Sessions once said that “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.” I wonder if the AG would say the same about Americans that attend happy hour, smoke an occasional cigar, eat fast-food, or don’t regularly exercise. After all, those are consumer choices as well.

The attorney general’s comments on cannabis reflect not only a disconnect from popular opinion – 61 percent of Americans support marijuana legalization – but also an old-school mentality toward progress. His approach is stubbornly anti-innovation and reminiscent of the Reefer Madness era.

This approach is troubling. The 1930s Reefer Madness campaign birthed the stigmatization of cannabis and its subsequent violent and costly war on drugs. The government’s propaganda not only negatively portrayed cannabis use as an activity exclusive to minorities at a time when racial tensions were particularly high, but directly associated it as a characteristic of criminals.

This well-cited disinformation was perpetuated by a collectivist mentality that further divided Americans on race, armed domestic police forces through a costly prohibition to arrest non-violent users, and in doing so prevented medical research on cannabis for over half a century. Perpetuating the stigmatization of recreational and medical cannabis use only supports the broken status quo, undermines consumer choice, and erodes states rights.
What’s even more telling is the length at which prohibitionists will go to ignore the science.

The reality is that cannabis generally causes less harm than alcohol and tobacco use, yet the Drug Enforcement Administration still classifies cannabis as a schedule I drug next to heroin. This classification defines schedule I as “drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

The agency, which is under Sessions’ control, should reschedule cannabis to better reflect its actual health impacts. Instead of listening to scientific evidence – cannabis has over 700 medical uses by some counts – Sessions approaches this policy like a misguided D.A.R.E. officer from the 1980s.

In February, several plaintiffs attempted to sue the DEA in order to reschedule the drug, but failed when the judge dropped the case because he felt the plaintiffs should petition the agency directly for such a change. However, it would take an estimated nine years to even get such a complaint heard through the petitioning process. That’s the definition of kicking the can down the road. Not only are prohibitionists ignoring the current science, but federal agencies are preventing greater academic research.

Science isn’t the only reality being ignored, as Sessions also neglects the societal consequences of the war on drugs.

Black Americans are four times as likely to be arrested for cannabis than white Americans, although cannabis use levels are similar among both races. There’s something wrong with that equation.

This backwards view only enables bad public policy. There are countless stories of cannabis successes, like the use of cannabis products to treat severe seizures, a treatment which is now supported by some scientific evidence. Cannabis can liberate Americans from the symptoms of debilitating diseases.

It’s clear that Session’s is the largest impediment to legalization, as he prevents access to medicinal and recreational cannabis. As one of the few officials who could aid in the legalization process, Sessions has instead declared himself the prohibition Czar.