States are challenging the supremacy of federal law on drug policy, so the Drug Enforcement Agency is likely to be confronted increasingly with petitions to remove marijuana from Schedule One of the Controlled Substances Act — the drugs that have "no accepted medical use."
Whatever the failures of the war on drugs, removing pot from Schedule One would be a bad idea. It would fly in the face of available scientific evidence and, to boot, would rely on demonstrably false promises from one of America's most self-righteous special interests.
The critical issue surrounding the reclassification of drugs in Schedule One is their medicinal value. In the case of marijuana, this is a distraction. The raw cannabis plant has no medicinal value. For the same reasons people no longer chew bark in order to cure headaches but instead buy aspirin and other painkillers, there is no medical reason to smoke pot. The pharmaceutical profession exists to isolate active medical ingredients from herbs and plants (or to synthesize them) and to provide safe, standardized doses with minimal side-effects. This is how every other drug works. There is no scientific or medical reason to make marijuana an exception.
The real issue with marijuana, beyond the medical ruse, is whether the drug should be available for recreation. And there are several reasons why it should not be.
An obvious one is that the federal government should not be in the business of reinforcing misinformation spread by advocates that pot is harmless. Removing marijuana from Schedule One would be a big step toward normalizing the use and abuse of a drug that has deleterious effects on individuals and wider society.
In teens and young adults, marijuana use has been shown to impede brain development and cause a loss of intelligence. It thus causes permanent brain damage, affecting memory and impulse control. In Colorado, marijuana was legalized in part because people claimed it would produce tax revenues to build schools. Advocating better education by legalizing a drug that stunts brain development in the young is, frankly, grotesque.
Marijuana, very often the first drug with which young people experiment, initiates them into a culture of drug use. It is thus a gateway in a social sense. But it is also a gateway in a chemical sense, too. Studies on animals have shown that exposure in adolescence to THC — the ingredient in marijuana that creates the high — primes the brain for an elevated response to other drugs later in life.
There is no need to exaggerate the threat; most marijuana users do not graduate to hard drugs. But a 2004 study showed that marijuana users are between three and five times more likely to do so than people who do not use pot. A society in which marijuana use is normalized can expect more trouble with methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin and other such dangerous drugs.
The countervailing benefits of legalization have also fallen far short of what its advocates promise. Pot advocates have long claimed that legalization would reduce crime by suppressing illicit trade and increase government revenue all in one fell swoop.
Neither claim has proven true. Revenues from marijuana taxes in Colorado from the first full fiscal year since legalization are projected to be only 58 percent of what was expected. And there has not been a drop off in violent crime either; the state's homicide rate rose 21 percent the year after voters agreed to legalize pot, and in Denver, gang-related murders are up this year, too. These increases may have nothing to do with pot, but legalization certainly has not produced detectable benefits.
A coherent libertarian case can be made that the federal government should not tell people what drugs they may and may not ingest. But all laws involve limits on individuals that a democratic society decides are necessary for the common good. Invoking the common good can be, and has been, often abused. But normalizing a drug that is particularly harmful to the young involves a radical and irresponsible elevation of individual rights at the expense of the most vulnerable members of society. To normalize the use of harmful drugs makes it more likely that the young will use them and do themselves long-term damage.
Individual liberty matters. But so does social responsibility and cohesion, which should not be sacrificed lightly to meet the personal desires of those who are strongest and most resilient. It is unwise to add to the centrifugal forces in society by normalizing irresponsible drug use.