This originally appeared in Reason Revolution, episode 8.
In 1936, a church-funded film called Tell Your Children was released in theaters. Originally produced by George Hirliman as a propaganda film, Tell Your Children displayed youths gone wild under the influence of marijuana. However, it is best known to the world under its later title, Reefer Madness. A more salacious version, released just years later, cemented its place as one of most ill-conceived, yet undeniably fascinating pieces of film. In both versions, young people have their lives ruined by the “dangerous” effects of marijuana, with violence, promiscuity, and death as a result of their inhalations. This type of presentation is known as “voodoo pharmacology,” the idea that any drug, no matter how benign, could cause “uncontrollable urge[s] of craving and compulsion.”
Popular culture has maintained this illogical and misguided view of marijuana use, so much so that public leaders continue to rail against it. Our current Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, has attempted to undo much of the Obama-era drug reforms as soon as he came into office. Last May, he sent a letter to congressional leadership urging them not to impede Justice Department prosecutions of marijuana offenses, even in states where medicinal or recreational marijuana is currently legal. In it, Sessions asserted that marijuana is “linked to an increased risk of psychiatric disorders such as psychosis,” which the Guardian’s Jamie Peck noted as “sound[ing] a lot like “reefer madness” to me.” I agree. While the research on medicinal marijuana is still not fully conclusive, most research suggests that it isn’t any worse for a person than tobacco and certainly alcohol.
With that in mind, why have we continued a national policy of marijuana prohibition that lead to 8.2 million arrests between 2001 and 2010, with African-Americans 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested? As the ACLU noted, marijuana accounted for 52% of all drug-related arrests during this period, and 88% of them were for mere possession. These aren’t the Pablo Escobar-style drug lords we’re talking about; these are millions of people who were arrested for simply possessing a little pot. Furthermore, the racial bias is ridiculous. During the same decade, African-Americans aged 18-25 used marijuana less than whites but still faced disproportionately higher arrest rates. This is on top of a historically racist and inhumane drug war that has destroyed millions of lives and countless communities.
As with many things, you can tie this nonsense back to Richard Nixon. In 1970, Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act into law, reclassifying marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug. To give you a sense of how fucked up that is, Schedule 1 puts marijuana on par with heroin — a drug that caused nearly 13,000 overdose deaths in 2015. It also classifies marijuana with having “no currently accepted medical uses” and a “lack of accepted safety for medical use.” This is definitely not the case. According to a report from the National Academies of Sciences, an analysis of 10,000 studies concluded that marijuana strongly “helps chronic pain in adults,” “lessens chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting,” and “relieves some symptoms of multiple sclerosis.” It also moderately helps with “sleep problems caused by obstructive sleep apnea syndrome, fibromyalgia, chronic pain, and multiple sclerosis” and “doesn’t increase risk of cancers.” Now, I’m not claiming it’s a wonder-drug like many cannabis supporters do, but I am following the best credible evidence we have. Based on this alone, marijuana shouldn’t be classified as a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act.
This is only the science and the law. Let’s talk about the politics of all this. As with marriage equality, the public has rapidly changed its view of marijuana legalization over the decades. In 1979, only 27% of Americans supported legalization. Today, that number is 61%, according to a recent CBS News poll. As for its supposed relationship to crime, only 23% of Americans think it’s related to violent crime. As for its supposed danger to consumers, 53% of Americans think that alcohol is worse than marijuana, with only 7% believing the inverse. What do these statistics say about the changing culture of pot? For starters, many more Americans have tried marijuana than in previous generations. According to this same poll, 50% of Americans have tried marijuana, as opposed to only 34% in 1997. The country is just getting more and more comfortable with pot; they’re learning that it isn’t the boogeyman drug that politicians like Jeff Sessions paint it as.
States are also getting wise to this conclusion. Eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational use and 30 permit medicinal uses. However, Sessions’ Justice Department isn’t dedicated to federalism on this matter. Despite these legalized means, the DEA will continue to prosecute people under the federal Controlled Substances Act. So much for limited government. Until Sessions resigns, or a new administration is elected, it appears that marijuana policy at the Justice Department will not follow the science or public opinion.
That doesn’t mean that Congress can’t do something about it. Last Tuesday, Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.) introduced the Marijuana Justice Act, a bill that “would amend the Controlled Substance Act to eliminate marijuana’s status as a Schedule 1 drug — a move that would decriminalize marijuana at the federal level.” Booker’s bill also “incentivize[s] states to legalize marijuana if their current laws have a ‘disproportionate arrest rate’ on minority or low-income individuals.” Building on President Obama’s previous reforms, the Marijuana Justice Act would retroactively apply to individuals charged for marijuana-related offenses, allowing for the commutation of sentences and expunging the records for those already released. Booker spoke of his bill in a public statement:
Descheduling marijuana and applying that change retroactively to people currently serving time for marijuana offenses is a necessary step in correcting this unjust system. States have so far led the way in reforming our criminal justice system and it’s about time the federal government catches up and begins to assert leadership.
Booker’s bill is definitely a step in the right direction, but he needs cosponsors as well as broad, bipartisan support. Despite our era of political gridlock and intense partisanship, this is an issue that Democrats and Republicans can get behind. Democrats like it because it will help those disproportionately harmed by terrible drug policy, particularly the poor and people of color. Republicans, especially libertarian-style ones, can get behind expanding personal freedom and cutting wasteful government spending on enforcement. As the recent CBS News poll indicates, “majorities of Republicans (63 percent), Democrats (76 percent), and independents (72 percent) oppose the federal government trying to stop marijuana use in these states.” This would be a prime piece of legislation for bipartisan cooperation as well as reasonable public policy.
Besides the political, legal, and scientific reasons for decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana, there’s also the moral component. I strongly believe in the philosophy of “self-proprietorship,” the Enlightenment principle that you own your life and your body. Jacob Sullum, writer for Reason magazine, brilliantly elucidated this concept and its relation to drugs:
People have a right to control their bodies, to control what goes into their bodies, to control their minds, ultimately, because that’s what you’re talking about. If you’re talking about psychoactive drugs, you’re talking about controlling the contents of your mind, what goes on inside your brain. That’s a pretty basic right, you would think.
Your life should belong to you and you should be able to do as you wish, so long as you’re not violating the rights of others. If we’re a country that prizes liberty above all else, this should be a foundation component of that liberty. Alas, pious politicians, overzealous cops, and moralizing nanny-staters have marched, en masse, to stop people from living their lives as they see fit. Legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana on the federal level would do a great deal to stop them in their tracks, while increasing the liberty, safety, and happiness of our citizens and their communities. Contact your Senators and Representatives and tell them you want a bipartisan push for decriminalization, if not outright legalization, of marijuana at the federal level. Prohibition taught us that when you unrightly criminalize something, you nevertheless make real criminals. Let’s not go down that road again. Let’s end the war on pot.