West Virginia recently became the 30th state to authorize the physician-recommended use of marijuana or marijuana-infused products. An additional fourteen states permit patients to access products containing cannabidiol, a specific chemical compound available in the cannabis plant. And this past January, scholars at the National Academy of Sciences determined that there exists “conclusive evidence” that the herb is effective for the treatment of chronic pain and other diseases. Nonetheless, federal law continues to declare that neither marijuana nor any of its organic constituents possess any “accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.” This sort of Flat Earth contention no longer passes the smell test.
That is why it remains exceedingly curious and excruciatingly frustrating that members of Congress steadfastly refuse to amend federal law in a manner that comports with this new reality. Ninety-four percent of US voters now believe that medical cannabis therapy ought to be legal and regulated, according to survey data provided last week by Quinnipiac University, and the overwhelming majority of Americans now reside in jurisdictions that have amended their laws in a manner that recognizes the therapeutic utility of the cannabis plant. It is high time that federal lawmakers do the same, and do so soon.
The failure of Congress to amend federal marijuana laws places the millions of patients who rely on these state-sanctioned programs at legal risk. That is because an existing federal provision protecting these programs could potentially expire later this week. The provision, known as the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, maintains that federal funds can not be used to prevent states from “implementing their own state laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession or cultivation of medical marijuana.” In December, Congress re-authorized the amendment as part of a short term spending package through April 28, 2017, at which time the budget — and the Amendment — will expire unless it is reauthorized by Congress.
In recent years, strong majorities of Congress have voted in favor of keeping this budgetary provision in place and it is vital that they do so again, especially now that the incoming administration has threatened to increase anti-marijuana enforcement efforts in states that have legalized it. Yet Congress can do far more.
Several bipartisan pieces of legislation are pending before the House and Senate that would rectify the existing, and ultimately untenable, conflict between state and federal marijuana laws. Among these, SB 777 | HR 1810 would amend the federal tax code in a manner that acknowledges the legitimacy of state-licensed marijuana businesses, HR 1820 would expand medical cannabis access to eligible military veterans, and HR 715 would reclassify marijuana and cannabidiol under federal law in a manner that for the first recognizes their therapeutic utility.
In addition, both HR 975, ‘The Respect State Marijuana Laws Act,’ and HR 1227 provide states with the flexibility and autonomy to establish their own marijuana policies free from federal interference. More than seven out of ten voters, including majorities of self-identified Democrats, Independents, and Republicans, support allowing states — not the federal government — the power to arbitrate pot policy.
So why are members of Congress dragging their feet? Many reflexively contend that more research is needed before the federal government can act. But this excuse fails to stand up to scrutiny.
Unlike modern pharmaceuticals, cannabis possesses an extensive history of human use dating back thousands of years, thus providing society with ample empirical evidence as to its relative safety and efficacy. Moreover, cannabis and its compounds are among some of the more studied biologically active substances of modern times. A search on PubMed using the term ‘marijuana’, yields nearly 25,000 scientific papers referencing the plant and/or its components. This totality of peer-reviewed research is far greater than that which exists for most other controlled substances, particularly pharmaceuticals. For example, a similar search for ‘hydrocodone’ (a commonly prescribed opioid pain medication) yields fewer than 1,000 citations in the peer-reviewed literature, while a search for ‘adderall’ (a prescription amphetamine often provided to young people to treat ADHD) reveals only 201 papers.
While cannabis’ Schedule I classification under federal law makes clinical research far more onerous than it should be, it does not preclude it all together. FDA-approved placebo controlled studies exist assessing the safety and efficacy of cannabis, and a recent literature review identifies an estimated 140 controlled trials involving some 8,000 patient participants. A recent review of several of these trials concludes, “Based on evidence currently available the Schedule I classification is not tenable; it is not accurate that cannabis has no medical value, or that information on safety is lacking.”
In short, we know enough about the relative safety and efficacy of cannabis, as well as the failures of cannabis prohibition, to allow adults the option to consume it and to allow states the autonomy to regulate it as best they see fit. It is time for members of Congress to acknowledge this reality and to amend federal laws in a manner that comports with majority public opinion and the plant’s rapidly changing legal and cultural status.
Paul Armentano is the Deputy Director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and is the co-author of the book Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013).