The Drug Enforcement Agency finds itself in a bit of a predicament in regards to marijuana. It’s legal for medical use in over half of America, but illegal otherwise. Unless, of course, you reside in the handful of states where recreational marijuana is allowed. In these areas, it’s legal per the state, but still illegal according to that stickler Uncle Sam. So exactly what power does the DEA have?
The DEA and Medical Marijuana
In December of 2014, congress quietly put an end to the DEA’s ability to raid lawful medical marijuana dispensaries by passing a provision prohibiting their involvement. Most states, thirty-two actually (and DC), have legalized medical marijuana in some capacity. But that didn’t staunch the DEA’s power. Before this provision, the justice department was allowed to shut down dispensaries that states had opened. Although this served more as an idle threat than anything (as the government kept its distance) the possibility hung over the heads of business owners and consumers. Thus, this statute – this leave the leaves alone regulation – was viewed as a victory for the industry.
DEA and Marijuana’s Classification
By and large, the DEA’s classification of marijuana as a Schedule I drug perpetuates many of the snarls entangling legal use and the government’s overstepping. Other Schedule I drugs include heroin, LSD, and ecstasy: the label signifies cannabis and molly as one and the same. Drugs under this umbrella have no medical use and harbor a high potential for addiction. They’re also linked to overdose. Never mind all the scientific and objective studies that have backed the health benefits of cannabis. Never mind that the idea of pot as a gateway drug has been disproven. Never mind that people overdose drinking cabernet, but never have smoking a bowl.
Marijuana, per the DEA, is a big, bad, dangerous drug for essentially one reason: because they say so
In fact, they recently had the opportunity to remedy weed’s overzealous classification: in August of this year, they stuck in their heels and refused to downgrade cannabis from a Schedule I to a Schedule II. This decision was largely criticized by marijuana proponents and everyone with common sense. Per CNN, even the DEA’s own judge viewed marijuana in reality (and this was thirty years ago). He deemed cannabis safer than most foods we consume and offered a starch-filled juxtaposition: eating ten raw potatoes induces a toxic response and yet you can buy dozens at the local market. He also called cannabis, “One of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man.” And still, the DEA refuses to budge. Round and round we go.
DEA’s Conflict of Interest
The decision of the DEA to maintain its classification of weed is perplexing, to say the least. Some people merely view the folks at the agency as outdated, petulant, or ignorant. But, if you look a little deeper, the DEA’s decision makes more sense and creates more anger. Plainly, it’s in their financial interest to keep marijuana as illicit as possible.
The DEA profits from the war on drugs: it makes money through fines and seizure of assets related to cannabis production
A failure to differentiate between cannabis and heroin also allows the DEA to spend more time raiding grow houses, arresting people for dime bags, and investigating green sales on the black market. All of this results in increased funding for the agency, which equates to more money and higher salaries. In short, it pays to keep cannabis criminal.
This year, it’s predicted that around 700,000 Americans will be arrested for marijuana
This is the leading type of drug arrest in the entire country and affects African Americans disproportionately. The arrests come with a heavy burden: possession of less than four ounces is punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of 2,500 dollars; possession of four to ten ounces is punishable of up to six years in prison and a fine of 10,000 dollars. Getting caught with a joint has the potential to ruin a person’s life, or at least mess it up considerably: pot is not a gateway drug, but being arrested for it is sometimes a gateway to hardships and, as a result, more serious illegal activities. The DEA even has a department solely dedicated to marijuana prohibition: The Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program. This division is headquartered in Virginia, its offices sandwiched between the ambassador to Prussia and the task force responsible for figuring out what to do with those pesky Salem witches. They’re really causing havoc in colonial Massachusetts.
To be fair, every single person in the DEA probably isn’t using pot to pad their checkbooks; it likely has several hardworking, decent people. For every Hank Shrader, loud-mouthed and know-it-all, there are people simply doing their jobs. So, what’s their excuse? Some at the DEA argue that marijuana is unworthy of reclassification because there aren’t enough studies to show that it has medicinal benefits. But this comes with a double-edged sword: because cannabis is a Schedule I drug, it’s hard to access and its study often requires approval, heavy-duty safe guards, and security systems. Yep, research is difficult and expensive. Still, the science behind cannabis is not as limited as the DEA believes (and, really, not limited at all). There are myriads of studies performed at national health institutes, university science labs, and hospital research facilities that all attest to its value.
This makes it easy to conclude that the DEA is in the business of believing one thing: what it wants
Some people, such as Paul Armentano (deputy director of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws), have even likened their theories on cannabis to the notion that the earth is flat. Hopefully, none of the agents plan a holiday cruise, since they might fall off the planet.
DEA Ignoring the Law
In states with legalized marijuana, the image of giddily leaving a pot shop with a bagful of goodies while waving to the DEA agent sitting across the street in his town car is enough to make us crack a smile. But, it turns out, the government doesn’t always play fair. In Colorado, pot-related arrests continue to occur. Some accuse police officers of blatantly ignoring the law, while others see them as wiggling through the tiniest of loopholes. They arrest people caught smoking while on probation or on Federal land. Most of these cases are dismissed, but the situation is, at best, a hassle for the arrestee and, at worse, devastating to their ability to make a living. Some businesses terminate employment of anyone detained, regardless if they’re convicted or not. The DEA isn’t sitting idly on the sidelines either. They’ve been known to raid legal shops just to make sure everything is in order, up to code, and following regulations. If it’s not, they shut the business down and, sometimes, make arrests. Then they go home and admire their muscles in the bathroom mirror. Despite all of this, the cannabis train has left the depot and there’s little the DEA can do about it. Minds and times have changed. But, until national legalization, we keep trucking on, advocating for marijuana reform and pretending that the crags in the Cascades and the Rockies are the mountain’s middle fingers, telling the politicians how the people feel. They’re supposed to represent us, after all.