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When asked about marijuana in an interview published by The New Yorker this past weekend, President Obama said, "I don't think it is more dangerous than alcohol."
Now, on the surface, the president's statement appears to be consistent with what he's said about marijuana before. And, at least his comparison of marijuana to alcohol, a drug that causes untold harm to the American people, is based on valid scientific evidence. The problem is that the president's commonsense approach to the legalization of marijuana has not translated into a meaningful policy change for medical marijuana and the hundreds of thousands of patients who continue to be told their actions are contrary to federal law and who are being prevented by the Justice Department from gaining access to a medicine that is legal in 20 states and the District of Columbia.
If the abuse potential of alcohol is far greater than marijuana as the president and science both suggest, then why is marijuana classified as one of the most dangerous drugs alongside heroin and LSD, while alcohol is sold over the counter without prescription to millions of Americans?
The reason why this question is so salient and important to Americans for Safe Access (ASA) and its membership across the country is that the Obama Administration has taken the opposite stance in court. ASA and others filed a petition in 2002 to reclassify marijuana for medical use, but the Obama Administration denied the petition in 2011, maintaining marijuana's position as a Schedule I substance with no medical value and the highest potential for abuse. ASA subsequently appealed the decision and argued that, in addition to ignoring sound science on marijuana, the Obama Administration failed to adhere to the statutory requirements of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) to consider marijuana's relative abuse potential by comparing it with other controlled substances.
If the president, or his Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), genuinely wanted to assess the abuse potential of marijuana compared with other drugs in its class, or drugs in lower classes like methamphetamine and cocaine, let alone compare it with alcohol which isn't even categorized as a controlled substance, the government could have easily done so at any point over the past decade of litigation.
The problem is that President Obama lacks authenticity. With the stroke of a pen, Obama, his Attorney General Eric Holder, or HHS could reclassify marijuana for medical use. Although it could involve Congress, the CSA was designed to give the executive branch discretionary authority to make changes to the classification of controlled substances.
But, what would reclassifying marijuana actually do?
At the very least, it would compel the government to develop a federal public health policy on medical marijuana, something patients have been waiting years for. It would arguably increase research, both private and public, and allow us to discover even more than we already know about this important botanical medicine. And, possibly the most crucial outcome is that it would remove the rationale the Obama Administration continues to use to go after patients and their providers in federal court.
This week, Michigan medical marijuana patient Jerry Duval who was convicted without a defense in federal court and sentenced to 10 years in prison will argue his appeal before the Sixth Circuit. According to The Huffington Post, Duval, a kidney and pancreas transplant patient who suffers from glaucoma and neuropathy, could cost U.S. taxpayers more than one million dollars to keep him imprisoned. And, for what? Why did the Obama Administration target Duval for arrest and prosecution in the first place, let alone continue to fight his appeal?
The president also told The New Yorker that marijuana reform should take place so that we can avoid "a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished." Isn't Duval one of the few who got unjustly punished, based on how many patients are by necessity violating federal law? In addition to fighting his appeal, the Obama Administration has so far refused to grant Duval his Compassionate Release Request.
This is why President Obama's words in The New Yorker this weekend ring so harshly. What we need is leadership and real reform, not rhetoric. It's no longer acceptable to pander to the popular will on medical marijuana -- hovering at 80 percent among Americans for more than a decade -- without actually doing anything about it. Obama must make this his defining moment by not just addressing the whims of adult marijuana users, but by also correcting the government's failed policies on medical marijuana.