Legalize Weed – The Upcoming DEA Review

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Marijuana Buds in Glass Jar - Legalize Weed

The news dropped in a document issued April 4th, 2016, and by the time of this writing—April 7th—you’re sure to have seen it on your social media feed.  Headlines begged the sensational question: does the Drug Enforcement Administration’s upcoming review of marijuana signal a swift end to nationwide weed prohibition?  Will we finally legalize weed?  Variations on the story were shared, hashtagged, and retweeted with the same starry-eyed enthusiasm you’d expect from any meme regarding Bernie Sanders or “the Universe hears your wishes” nonsense. That the DEA would even consider altering the drug’s classification is certainly news. But is a radical shift in drug policy really on the horizon?

Will we finally legalize weed?

The short answer: maybe. But probably not. So don’t hold your breath (any longer than is necessary).

A brief, insufficient explanation of the government’s scheduling program for narcotics might go as such: marijuana is currently listed as Schedule I. That’s the most rigidly restricted class we’ve got in this country, effectively stating that Wacky Tobaccy is just as addictive and medically useless as heroin, GHB, and bath salts. For perspective, those illicit substances listed as Schedule II—controlled but considered less dangerous –include Fentanyl (rest in peace, Michael Jackson), opium (we tip our 40s for Edgar Allan Poe), as well as Codeine, OxyContin, Methadone, and Vicodin (fare thee well, 14,000 prescription opioid fatalities and counting in the US alone). Lesser schedulings include ketamine at level III (it’s never a true rave without Special K), benzodiazepines like valium at IV (that stuff your grandmother crushes up into her nightcap), and coming in at level V, cough syrup and the like (you try Robotripping in high school with anything less).

Of course, it doesn’t take a seasoned chemist to call BS on this demonization of the Green Herb.  Those who smoke pot and want to legalize weed can clean out an entire Taco Bell, true; but that’s hardly on par with chewing off a man’s face and eyeballs after ingesting bath salts. And as more and more states have dared to err on the side of legalization, it’s become more apparent than ever that weed is no scourge upon humanity. Colorado has become a sort of media figurehead for the marijuana movement. Since approving Amendment 64 in late 2012, the state has seen tax revenues increase by a string of record-shattering fiscal years—from $44 million the first year to a projected $125 million in 2015. Note that these figures don’t represent total revenue, but only that gained exclusively by taxes and fees on cannabis. Vast amounts of said money have gone toward education and the construction of public schools and to a police force no longer tasked with treating petty drug offenses like a Zombie Apocalypse. Indeed, legalization has knocked the wind from a number of outlaw drug rackets; as such, Denver saw a drop in violent crime of 2.2 percent, a drop in burglaries of 9.5 percent, and a decrease in pot-related arrests by an astonishing 84 percent.

Legalize Weed - Marijuana Sign, Green and White Trans-Canada Highway Sign with Marijuana leaf in place of Maple leaf with text Legalize It with sky background

Seems like a pretty slam-dunk case to present to the DEA, doesn’t it? Surely, undeniable reason will rear its head, and this simple, beloved plant will no longer be so unjustly criminalized, right?

Maybe. But probably not. Because there’s another positive indicator in these statistics—well, positive to some, not others—that actually runs counter to the entire point of the 1970 passage of the Controlled Substances Act.  On the surface, it seems like the unjustified prosecution of nonviolent drug offenders is a great thing, freeing up law enforcement to go after real crooks and keeping untold sums of money from getting squandered in a clogged judicial system. But consider: this report, issued by the Marijuana Arrests Research Project and citing the FBI’s own data regarding legalizing weed, revealed that for every white Coloradoan arrested for pot offenses prior to legalization, 1.5 more Latinos suffered the same criminal fate, as did 3.1 times as many African-Americans.  It’s not that a minority demographic is paradoxically more likely to commit a crime than the white majority—they were simply more likely to be targeted for it. Now couple that with this admission from Richard Nixon’s Domestic Policy advisor John Erlichman, recorded before his death in 1999, but published only recently in Harper’s Magazine:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities… we could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did,” Ehrlichman added.

As has long been alleged, the underlying aim of Nixon’s War on Drugs was not to legalize weed—but to lock up minorities and other perceived enemies of the Conservative establishment.  This is the paranoid, bigoted, ruthless political climate in which Tricky Dick signed the Controlled Substances Act into law.  And yes—that politically, racially motivated CSA is the very same five-tiered framework for criminalizing narcotics that the DEA has been asked to revisit. They’ve pledged to do not only that, but to have their answer ready no later than this coming June.

That’s June, 2016.  Tellingly, it’s not November of this, an election year.  Let’s explore that a bit.  The serious drug policy reform we’ve witnessed thus far would have been impossible in any administration prior to Obama—he’s hardly a McGovern-style progressive, but also no George W., nor a Reaganaut Democrat like Bill Clinton, either. When Washington and Colorado both voted to end pot prohibition, the executive branch took the unprecedented tack of respecting those states’ rights by not expending federal resources cracking down on the will of Coloradoans and Washingtonians. But in terms of marijuana legalization at the national level, the President demurred to Congress, telling CNN, “What is and isn’t a Schedule I narcotic is a job for Congress. It’s not something by ourselves that we start changing.” Obama’s former Attorney General Eric Holder took a similar approach, saying this much to Frontline:

I certainly think it ought to be rescheduled. You know, we treat marijuana in the same way that we treat heroin now, and that clearly is not appropriate. So at a minimum, I think Congress needs to do that.

It’s first worth noting that no one in government holds greater sway over such things as legalizing weed than the Attorney General, so here, Holder has washed his hands as effectively as Pontius Pilate did. Secondly, all parties involved seemingly prefer that the DEA’s review of weed be a matter for Congress to handle—ideally, before June’s end. Barack Obama’s tenure as President won’t yet be over at that point. Nor will the GOP’s lock on both the House and the Senate.

Legalize Weed – The path forward

For proponents of marijuana reform, they’ll be losing a valued (if hands-off) ally when Obama leaves office. But if current trends continue, the much-reviled Republican frontrunner Donald Trump will have cost his party not just the White House come November, but both houses of Congress as well. Trump, as he cannot stop reminding us, is no friend to minorities, and his vulgar appeal to uneducated while male voters has even old-school GOP establishment aghast; undoing The Donald’s damage to the party might prove to be impossible. But what Trump has thus far merely said out loud has, to a much quieter degree, been written into law by his Right Wing ilk for decades. Ronald Reagan knew better than to tell the public that Mexicans are all drug dealers—but in doubling down on Nixon’s War on Drugs, he let his brutal, biased policies speak for him; it was during his administration that incarceration rates for drug offenders increased by 126 percent, but damned if many white families noticed.

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Trump’s campaign platform of sheer hate speech will likely send Republicans in Congress packing, and in historically massive numbers. But before they vacate DC, the party of building walls, of erasing black voices by insisting that all lives matter, has at least this much left to take care of: overseeing the Drug Enforcement Administration’s possible overhaul of marijuana classification. If you’ll recall from our history lesson above, it’s currently CSA Schedule I; it’s what gave fangs to the institutionalized racism of Nixon, Reagan, and more. Can we trust the final, dying gasp of a bloated and obsolete party to atone for past abuses of power, to end the focused persecution of blacks and Hispanics by finally admitting that weed is no worse than a beer and a cigarette?

Maybe. But honestly? Probably not.

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