Speaking at a recent campaign stop in South Carolina, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton called for reclassifying marijuana under the federal Controlled Substances Act, moving it from Schedule I—the most restrictive category—to Schedule II. “The problem with medical marijuana is, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence about how well it works for certain conditions,” Clinton opined. “But we haven’t done any research. Why? Because it is considered what is called a Schedule I drug, and you can’t even do research in it.”
To resolve this dilemma, Clinton said, she would move marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule II, “so that researchers at universities [and the] National Institutes of Health can start researching what is the best way to use it—how much of a dose does somebody need, how does it interact with other medications.”
Although Clinton’s call for rescheduling represents a modest improvement in her willingness to address America’s failed Drug War, her newfound stance is hardly progressive. Various marijuana-law reform advocates, including NORML and High Times, have filed administrative petitions over the course of the last few decades seeking to repeal pot’s Schedule I status.
Even among the 2016 presidential candidates, Clinton’s position isn’t unique. This past spring, Republican hopeful Rand Paul co-sponsored congressional legislation that would move cannabis to Schedule II. In September, Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley pledged that, if elected, he would use his executive powers to reschedule pot. And in November, Clinton’s leading Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders, introduced legislation in the Senate to strike both marijuana and THC from the federal criminal code.
While Sanders’s bill would significantly transform America’s marijuana policies, Clinton’s rescheduling proposal would actually do little to change the existing landscape. Moreover, her premise that scientists have yet to do any meaningful research on cannabis and its effects is woefully incorrect.
Unlike conventional pharmaceuticals, the marijuana plant possesses an extensive history of human use dating back thousands of years, thereby providing us with ample empirical evidence as to its safety and efficacy. Moreover, despite cannabis’s modern-day politicization, the plant and its compounds have been subject to extensive scientific scrutiny. A search using the term “marijuana” on the website of the National Library of Medicine—the repository for all peer-reviewed scientific research—yields more than 22,000 papers referencing the plant and/or its constituents. Among this extensive body of literature are over 100 randomized controlled studies, involving thousands of subjects, evaluating the safety and efficacy of cannabis or individual cannabinoids. A 2012 review of several of these trials concluded: “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 [its] safety is lacking.”
In short, Clinton’s argument is both ignorant and unpersuasive. Marijuana shouldn’t be included in the Controlled Substances Act whatsoever because ample scientific evidence already exists disproving the government’s claim that it is among the most dangerous substances known to humankind. Moreover, moving cannabis to Schedule II—the same category as cocaine—continues to misrepresent the plant’s safety relative to other controlled substances, and fails to provide states with the ability to create their own pot policies free from federal interference.
Curiously, the federal regulations that make it so difficult to conduct research on marijuana in the United States—such as the requirement that all samples used must come from the University of Mississippi’s pot program, which was granted a virtual monopoly on cultivation by the federal government—apply only to cannabis, not to Schedule I drugs in general. Thus, simply moving cannabis to Schedule II will do nothing to change these regulations.
Finally, the sort of long-term Phase III trials that Clinton advocates—the gold standard of medical research—are prohibitively expensive. Typically, such trials are funded by private pharmaceutical companies hoping to bring a product to market; in other cases, the federal government will assist in paying these costs. However, neither entity is likely to pony up the tens of millions of dollars necessary to conduct these trials for cannabis anytime soon, if ever.
This is not to say that rescheduling cannabis wouldn’t have any positive effects. At a minimum, it would bring an end to the federal government’s longstanding intellectual dishonesty about pot, especially the claim that it “lacks accepted medical use.” It would also likely result in state-compliant cannabusinesses being able to use banks and other financial services, and to take tax deductions similar to those enjoyed by other businesses.
But it would do little to significantly ameliorate federal prohibition or to make herbal cannabis accessible for clinical study. These goals can only be accomplished by de-scheduling cannabis completely and treating it in a manner similar to alcohol or tobacco. This will give states the power to establish their own marijuana policies, free from federal intrusion.