It is unquestionably one of the burning questions of our time. Imagine if the FDA finally acknowledged that marijuana had tremendous medicinal potential and approved it instead of allowing it to languish under its current absurd Schedule I classification. The official reason why cannabis is illegal on a federal level under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) of 1970? It has “no currently accepted medical use” and has a “high potential for abuse.”
Given the thousands of studies that show how marijuana does, in fact, have the capacity to help ease symptoms of conditions at the very least, the first point seems ludicrous. As for the second point, in 2014, Barack Obama, when he was still the President, admitted that “prohibition is unscientific and unjust.” Furthermore, he acknowledged that weed is less dangerous than alcohol. The fact that Obama actually tried pot means he understands more about the plant than the litany of lawmakers who believe it is the tool of the devil.
A 2016 poll showed that 57% of Americans believe marijuana should be legalized. In 2006, that number was just 32%. The growing body of research, plus the hundreds of thousands of people who have benefited from weed, has clearly made an impact on the general public. Furthermore, 29 states plus D.C. allow marijuana for medical use, while nine states plus D.C. allow it for recreational use. With such a growing wave of support, surely one would think it’s only a matter of time before the FDA approves weed. As it turns out though, that’s not exactly the way it’s going.
The FDA Isn’t Backing Down with its Stance on Marijuana
Marijuana will only be removed from Schedule I upon an act of Congress. Since 1970, pro-weed supporters have argued for its removal but have met a brick wall time after time. Even if marijuana lost its Schedule I classification, it would have to be approved by the FDA, and that organization has repeatedly rejected such proposals. However, the FDA has approved several cannabinoid-based synthetic medicines, and claims they are safer than the real thing.
In fact, the news outlet VICE submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to find out more about the FDA’s 2015 marijuana scheduling recommendation, and all records related to it. The FDA refused to comment, VICE appealed, and ultimately, the FDA had to hand the information over. The data shows why the FDA, in concert with the DEA, believes cannabis should be more heavily restricted than deadly opioids such as fentanyl and heroin. VICE published some of the highlights, which included:
- A study from 2000 which suggested that weed was addictive in monkeys.
- It is too easy to buy cannabis.
- Weed makes you feel ‘funny’ when you’re high.
- Users tend to smoke the substance.
Bizarrely, the FDA also referred to several pro-cannabis studies which revealed:
- Contrary to popular myth, it is not a gateway drug.
- There is no link between weed and mental illness.
- Pot doesn’t make you ‘dumber’ on a permanent basis.
Ultimately, however, the FDA doesn’t view marijuana as ‘medicine,’ and it remains adamant that it is addictive. While it is difficult to remain optimistic that the FDA will one day change its mind on the issue, what would happen if it did? Obviously, the DEA would also have to remove weed from Schedule I.
A Greater Level of Research
At present, marijuana is in a ‘Catch 22’ situation. It is a Schedule I drug primarily because there is supposedly no evidence of its medicinal value. However, since it is so severely classified, it is tough for researchers to prove otherwise due to legal restrictions. Lester Grinspoon, who co-wrote Marihuana: The Forbidden Medicine, is convinced that weed’s Schedule I classification has hurt research efforts immensely.
Since the mid-1960s, FDA approval of medicines tends to rely on double-blind studies. Marijuana has been Schedule I since 1970, so it has been almost impossible to perform this type of study in the United States. The strict requirements and regulations pertaining to Schedule I substances don’t apply to Schedule III and IV substances, although most of them apply to Schedule II.
Also, since 1999 research involving marijuana requires approval by the DEA, FDA, Public Health Service, and a relevant institutional review board. Research teams have to get marijuana from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which essentially has a monopoly on the legal supply of weed (and frankly, the marijuana the government grows bears little relation to what you’ll get from a legal dispensary). Moreover, NIDA has long since rallied against the use of marijuana and is exceedingly unhelpful.
FDA approval would no doubt remove a lot of these hurdles and improve the quantity and quality of marijuana research.
Increase in Tax Revenue
Lawmakers in Washington are desperately trying to balance the budget, but if the FDA approved marijuana and it became federally legalized, an estimated $8.7 billion in federal and state tax would be generated annually. This figure comes from the assumption that weed would be taxed similarly to tobacco and alcohol.
Also, state and local governments would no longer have to spend billions of dollars regulating the use of cannabis. Opponents of legalization suggest society would go to pot (pun intended) with an increase in criminal activity. However, a number of holes have also been poked in this assertion.
Possible Reduction in Crime
The suggestion that legalizing marijuana would lead to an increase in crime is based on the erroneous assumption that weed is extremely addictive. A lengthy paper by Charles Stimson in Heritage.org in 2016 makes a host of utterly ludicrous suppositions. He suggests that drug cartels would have an even greater opportunity to make money, which would inevitably lead to violence.
If marijuana became legal, and it was easy to purchase, then why would the shady activity of criminal cartels increase when weed would be widely available? During the Prohibition Era (1919 – 1933) when alcohol was illegal, did the criminal activities of underworld gangs increase or decrease? We all know that they increased substantially. When alcohol became legal, though, what happened to bootleggers? They all but disappeared.
Stimson also points to the crime rate in Amsterdam, which is one of the most dangerous cities in Europe and is more tolerant toward marijuana than most. In 2012, its homicide rate was 4.4 per 100,000 people, although it has fallen in recent years. Meanwhile, in Detroit, Michigan, where marijuana is only legal for medicinal use, the murder rate is 43.4 per 100,000 people. Likewise, in Dallas, Texas, where possession of two ounces of weed can lead to six months in jail, the murder rate is 10.6 per 100,000 people. I could go on and on, but safe to say, Stimson is totally wrong here.
In any case, weed is technically illegal in Amsterdam outside of coffee shops, and it’s only allowed in small doses. Also, it is illegal for these coffee shop owners to buy weed! So relaxed attitude or not, the law in the Netherlands means that criminals can thrive.
The bottom line is that if weed was made legal, buyers and sellers could make their cases in court and not at the barrel of a gun.
Freeing Up Prison Space
While a lot of people in prison deserve to be there, a significant percentage do not. There is a drug arrest made every 18 seconds in America, and there were around 800,000 marijuana-related arrests in 2008. While that number has fallen since American jails are still filled with people who committed a minor infraction, how many of these individuals have their lives ruined by their spell in prison? How many leave the prison as a hardened criminal likely to commit more dangerous offenses?
Unfortunately, America does not guarantee ‘retroactive ameliorative relief,’ which is a fancy term for a relaxation of a prison sentence. In other words, if you’re in prison for five years for possession of a few ounces of weed and the plant becomes legalized, you won’t benefit from early release, nor will your sentence be stricken from the record.
Several Industries Would Thrive
As you probably know, federal law forbids banks from accepting marijuana money, and while the ban has been relaxed by the Department of Treasury, most banks are unwilling to assume the risk. Moreover, the likes of Visa and MasterCard cannot process any weed-linked transactions. If cannabis were legalized, these barriers would be removed, and marijuana growers and sellers would enjoy a massive financial boost.
Theoretically, companies in the industry would finally be able to take advantage of the tax breaks that currently elude them. At present, IRS Section 280E stops weed companies from deducting expenses from their income, barring those that are considered ‘cost of goods sold.’
Medicare & Medicaid Would Benefit
This point is well beyond the hypothetical since it has already happened in states where marijuana is legal for medicinal use. The number of prescriptions for opioids and other prescription medication has fallen dramatically in these states, and as a result, Medicare has saved an estimated $170 million. Researchers believe that if marijuana were federally legal, the program would save around $470 million a year.
It Isn’t All Wine and Roses
It would be remiss of us to paint an entirely rosy picture of a potential marijuana FDA legalization, when there are some definite downsides, which include:
- If medical marijuana were subjected to FDA approval, companies would be forced to complete a lengthy process that could cost up to $1 billion per product. There are hardly any cannabis companies with that kind of cash, which means Big Pharma could swoop in and ruin everything.
- Regulators might try to outlaw another aspect of marijuana, with THC being the prime candidate.
- The government could adjust its drug policy which may inadvertently result in some Schedule II drugs moving to Schedule I.
- If you know your history, you’ll realize that state’s rights are a massive issue – if weed became legal on a federal level, you could bet that states, where it is illegal, will engage in legal action and perhaps a Constitutional challenge.
Final Thoughts: The FDA and Legalization of Marijuana
It is coming up to half a century since marijuana found itself as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. It was a decision based primarily on fear and ignorance. There had been little in the way of research into the plant’s effects so, in a way, the hysteria was slightly understandable back then. Fast forward to 2018, and that excuse is no longer valid.
There is a veritable ton of studies (thousands in fact) which at the very least show that weed has medical potential. Yet the powers that be refuse to change their archaic stance. Suggestions that legalizing marijuana would lead to a breakdown in society not seen since 3rd, 4th and 5th century Rome are absurd.
The legalization of weed for recreational use in several states in recent years makes us believe there is hope on the horizon. It will be a long and drawn out fight as opponents of weed dig their heels in, but eventually, common sense will prevail. It must, or else opioids and the likes of dangerous pharmaceutical drugs will continue to take lives.