Marijuana policy recommendations promulgated this week by the Joe Biden campaign fall well short of the changes necessary to adequately address the historic and ongoing failures of federal cannabis prohibition.
Specifically, the plan calls for rescheduling the marijuana plant under the Controlled Substances Act — a move the campaign insists will lead toward its eventual “decriminalization.”
Unfortunately, rescheduling cannabis from Schedule I of the CSA to a lower status is both impractical and counterproductive.
While current federal law categorizes and regulates marijuana like heroin (both are categorized as Schedule I controlled substances), rescheduling the plant to a Schedule II drug (like cocaine or oxycodone) — as the candidate proposes on his website — or even a Schedule III drug (like anabolic steroids) is similarly inappropriate.
Such a change would restrict adults’ ability to legally access the substance to those with a doctor’s prescription only and would continue to maintain criminal penalties for anyone who possesses the substance to absent such authorization.
Further, the federal policies in place that stifle researcher’s ability to clinically study cannabis — such as the requirement that all source material be purchased from the University of Mississippi’s federally licensed marijuana cultivation program — are regulatory requirements that are specific to marijuana, not to other Schedule I substances.
Simply rescheduling the plant from Schedule I to a lower status neither amends these regulatory hurdles nor does it facilitate the type of clinical trial research on cannabis that the Biden campaign has repeatedly called for.
In addition, the campaign’s call for marijuana decriminalization is only half a loaf. Decriminalization, a policy that replaces criminal penalties for low-level possession offenses with civil sanctions, keeps the illicit marijuana marketplace intact. This policy does nothing to reduce the size of the illicit cannabis market, nor does it bring any needed controls to this market. Under decriminalization, marijuana production and distribution remain dominated by criminal entrepreneurs rather than by licensed businesses, and these underground transactions remain unregulated and untaxed.
Most problematically, decriminalization continues to classify cannabis as contraband, thereby assuring that police will continue to routinely interact with communities — and communities of color especially — in order to maintain the failed policy of marijuana prohibition. Under this policy, police will issue citations to those who possess small quantities of cannabis and law enforcement will continue to use force, when necessary, to seize marijuana and marijuana-related contraband – sometimes with tragic consequences.
As reported in April by the American Civil Liberties Union, Black Americans are 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for a marijuana crime than white Americans despite using cannabis at similar rates. In many instances, decriminalization perpetuates this reality.
For example, police officers in New York City for decades continued to disproportionately target African Americans and Latinos for marijuana-related violations despite the state having decriminalized the offenses in the late 1970s. In short, decriminalizing cannabis will do little to discourage this sort of police misconduct.
Published: July 13, 2020
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