WASHINGTON — Prominent pro- and anti-marijuana legalization advocates squared off at a debate at the Brookings Institution Thursday night titled “Should the federal government remove marijuana from its list of Schedule I drugs?”
As the debate moderator noted, marijuana is “in the midst of a revolution.” Medical marijuana is now legal in 23 states and the District of Columbia, and the Pennsylvania legislature voted this week to become the twenty-fourth state. Polls show California and Nevada leaning toward legalizing recreational use this fall, and national support for legalization is nearing 60 percent. Not to mention the Drug Enforcement Administration’s recent announcement that it will make a decision within the first half of this year on whether to reschedule marijuana.
On the pro-rescheduling side were Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, a longtime legalization advocate in Congress, and John Hudak, a senior fellow at Brookings and author of the recent essay, “The medical marijuana mess.”
Arrayed against them were David Evans, executive director of the Drug Free Schools Coalition and an advisor to the Drug Free America Foundation, and Bertha Madras, a professor of psychobiology at Harvard Medical School and a former deputy director in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
An audience poll taken before debate started showed it was going to be an uphill battle for Evans and Madras, with 88 percent of the audience in favor of removing marijuana from Schedule I, 6 percent opposed and 6 percent unsure.
Hudak favored dropping marijuana to a Schedule II drug, saying that, although it wouldn’t resolve the growing conflict between state and federal law, it would bring down the research barriers that have stymied the answers to important medical and policy questions regarding marijuana.
"We shouldn't leave to voters to make decisions about empirical questions,” Hudak said. “Whether marijuana is going to help them or hurt them should not be decided at the ballot box. It should be decided by doctors, by medical professionals, by Congress and a president who listens to good information and encourages access to good information.”
“But that’s not what we have,” Hudak continued. “We have a system that is broken, we have a government that is purposely hindering medical research into cannabis, and so voters have been left to take out their aggression at the ballot box […] They’ve been forced to do that because they have a government that’s not responsive to science or research needs or policy realities.”
However, Blumenauer said he wanted marijuana removed the federal drug schedule completely, citing the large public interest and the “flawed and destructive political decision that was made in 1970.”
“I want more research,” Blumenauer said. “I want it based on evidence. I want marijuana to be in a situation where we are legalizing, regulating, taxing, and people know what they’re getting, Like what we’ve done with tobacco. We had smoking rates go down by two-thirds. We didn't have prohibition, we didn't lock people up, but we educated, we re-engineered the product, and we taxed the dickens out of it. An approach like that will help us go forward, and I think we will find all sorts of therapeutic applications once we strip it away and do it properly.”
“But that train’s left the station already,” Blumenauer continued. “if you don’t think it’s going to be largely legalized over the course of the next five years, you might be smoking what we’re talking about.”
Madras countered that there’s been extensive research, and access to research, on marijuana, and none of the studies have found therapeutic benefits for whole-plant marijuana. She said cannabis has a high risk for abuse, degrades brain function, and is properly placed in the federal government’s list of drugs with no accepted medical value.
“The real issue is 90 percent of people using medical marijuana are using it for pain,” Madras said, “and unless we currently have a rampant national epidemic of pain among young men who are largely in their 20s, 30s and 40s who happen to have a lot more pain on the weekend than during the week, this reeks of a misuse of the term of medicine.”
“This is not a war on drugs,” Madras continued. “This is a defense of our brains, the ultimate source of our humanity.”
During his opening statement, Evans made his case against cannabis by derisively displaying large pictures of medical marijuana edibles such as “narc bars” and a dispensary that was open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. (“Why 10 a.m.?” Evans mused. “Maybe they can’t get up earlier.”)
Evans blamed the current popularity of legalization on the nefarious and well-heeled marijuana industry.
“We’re at on marijuana where we were with tobacco in the ‘50s,” he said. “The marijuana industry has been deceptive. They’re very powerful. Most of the people on our side are volunteers, just like they were when we fought big tobacco. We walk into a senator's office, and there are three or four highly-paid lobbyists from the marijuana industry.”
“People are going to look back and regret this decision,” Evans said. “History will ultimately vindicate us.”
Evans might have to wait a long, long time for his vindication. Another snap poll of the audience taken after the debate showed those in favor of dropping marijuana from Schedule I had risen to 91 percent, compared to 9 percent opposed.