Let’s start at the beginning. While cannabis is not indigenous to the Americas—it originated somewhere in Asia thousands of years ago—it has a long, sometimes romantic and sometimes volatile, history in North America.
A Brief History of Hashish
Barney Warf, University of Kansas professor, published a paper called “High Points: An Historical Geography of Cannabis,” in which he traces the movement of Cannabis from Asia throughout the world in addition to the evolution of its purposes. Warf stated that hemp was heavily cultivated by the British colonies on the east coast of colonial America for its industrial utility, not for it’s recreational value (which hemp doesn’t really have because of its extremely low THC levels). According to Warf, the British introduced recreational marijuana to Jamaica and the Portuguese to Brazil. In both cases, it was a tool used to mollify slaves. From there, recreational marijuana spread because of the tax revenue it promised and because it was an escape from the severe labor conditions vast amounts of people were subjected to in the slave-driven Western world. Marijuana as a narcotic was introduced to the United States during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). Mexican refugees fleeing the violent war sought safety and opportunity in America, and they brought something in return: marijuana. Xenophobia and racial bias against the Spanish-speaking immigrants cultivated a negative association between marijuana and Mexicans, and anti-marijuana proponents capitalized on that fear. The outcomes? Mexicans and their “marijuana menace” were harshly indicted in terrible crimes, racialized propaganda claiming that marijuana was linked to violence, insanity, and crime permeated the American zeitgeist, and, in 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act was passed, effectively criminalizing the plant and codifying the power of fear and ignorance to drive social policy.
Let’s pause for a second.
This wave of anti-Mexican, anti-marijuana sentiment infected the nation about a century ago. Today, our federal government is still operating within the confines of that sentiment. Got that?
Okay, let’s resume.
After the Marihuana Tax Act was passed, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) implemented an enforcement plan that focused on eradicating wild cannabis growth and ensuring the growth of the plant for legal purposes only, mitigating hysterical sensationalism, encouraging the federal judiciary to apply the law in the strictest sense, and allocating federal resources toward large scale trafficking operations rather than petty possession. In the late 1940’s opioid abuse escalated, and Congress, incensed by the assertion that marijuana resulted in the consumption of hard drugs like heroine, responded by enacting two pieces of legislation that, for the first time, placed marijuana in the same category as narcotic drugs. The first law was the Boggs Act (1951), which provided the following uniform offenses for violations of the Marihuana Tax Act and the Narcotic Drug Import and Export Act (1922): 2-5 years of imprisonment after the first offense, 5-10 years after the second offense, and 10-20 years after the third and subsequent offenses. Each offense required a fine of $2,000. The second law enacted was Public Law 728 (1956), an amendment to the Internal Revenue Code of 1954 and the Narcotic Drugs Import and Export Act that escalated the penalties for violations of drug laws and broadened the scope of the federal government’s authority over the use, distribution, and possession of narcotics. The 1970’s laws reflected a paradoxical shift in anti-marijuana sentiment. The unreasonably harsh minimum sentences imposed by the Narcotic Drug Import and Export Act and the Boggs Act did little to eradicate drug culture, so Congress repealed the majority of those ineffective sentences. Then the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act (1970) was passed.
And this is where things get really… stupid.
Title II of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act is the Controlled Substances Act, which created a drug “schedule” categorizing drugs into five different schedules based on medical utility and risk of abuse. Schedule V are the safest, with the least potential for abuse. They include drugs such as cough syrups, Robitussin AC, Motofen, Lyrica, Parepectolin, and other medications typically used for pain relief and cough suppressants. Schedule IV are minimally risky and include drugs such as Xanax and Valium. Schedule III drugs are moderately risky and include medications like Vicodin. Schedule II drugs are considered dangerous and have a high potential for abuse. They include cocaine, meth, Adderall, and OxyContin. Schedule I drugs are the most treacherous of the bunch, including heroin, LSD, ecstasy, peyote, and marijuana.
Yes. You read that right. Marijuana is considered more dangerous than cocaine and meth. One time for logic.
Two years after the Controlled Substance Act was passed, The National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse issued two reports conceding that marijuana was less a public health threat than it was a controversial social matter. Despite this acknowledgement, fears about marijuana—many of which were rooted in racism since most marijuana consumers at that time were people of color—kept the drug categorized firmly in place as a dangerous, highly addictive Schedule I substance. That was in the 70’s, though. Things have changed, haven’t they? Not really. Under the Obama administration, the DEA made a statement indicating that it would not “target individuals with serious medical conditions who comply with state laws authorizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes.” This 2009 statement was a concession from the feds, not necessarily encouraging the use of marijuana, but acknowledging state rights and a shifting climate. That was cool. However, in August 2016, the DEA rejected two proposals that marijuana be rescheduled. Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg offered detailed explanations (response 1 and response 2) to the proposals, citing the lack of scientifically valid data supporting the safety and efficacy of marijuana use as the basis for the DEA’s decision. The categorization of marijuana as a Schedule I drug is more than confounding. It’s incredibly divisive given the increasing amount of states allowing recreational and medical marijuana use. It’s highly problematic for people convicted of possession since it subjects them to the most severe penalties. Finally, it’s a major roadblock to those attempting to study the drug. Why did the feds make cannabis a schedule I drug? History shows us that the rationale was concocted by a combination of ignorance, xenophobia, racism, sensationalism, and fear, but certainly not science.
So why is cannabis still a schedule I Drug?
The answer to that question is either so shameful and abhorrent, it hurts to say it, or the FDA and the DEA know something about cannabis we just can’t figure out. I have to say, between the two, I’d rather the latter. Wishful thinking, I guess.