Eighty-five years ago marijuana was banned by federal statute and in the 1970’s marijuana was classified by the federal government as a controlled substance – drugs designated illegal, which could only be illicitly obtained. These drugs were often demonized as habit-forming associated with less desirable folks with addiction issues – not contributing to society – and the focus of the morally misguided failed federal ‘War on Drugs’. Interestingly, in 2013 according to a Gallup poll, for the first time some 58% of citizens supported legalization, yet marijuana is still on the federal controlled substance list alongside dangerous drugs such as heroin and meth. However, the use of medical marijuana has been approved by 23 states and the District of Columbia to help minimize the side-effects of diseases ranging from nausea and glaucoma to cancer and HIV/AIDS; used to treat ailments like multiple sclerosis and to help with chronic pain – but it was still banned on the federal level until a provision that lifted the ban was “quietly placed in the recent spending bill” passed by Congress last week.
Despite the legalization of medical marijuana in these states and recent studies showing that it is not a gate-way drug – a drug the use of which leads to the use of other more addicting drugs – the federal government had retained the right to raid and harass medical marijuana dispensaries and prosecute their owners. This new legislation is a turning point in how the federal government views medical marijuana and it had vigorous bi-partisan support.
Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), one of the bill’s co-authors commented:
“This is a victory for so many. The first time in decades that the federal government has curtailed its oppressive prohibition of marijuana”
On this historic move by Congress, Representative Sam Farr (D-CA) said:
“The federal government will finally respect the decisions made by the majority of states that passed medical marijuana laws. This is a great day for common sense because now our federal dollars will be spent more wisely on prosecuting criminals and not sick patients.”
This is a huge deal because up and until recently, Republicans have long been against any type of marijuana legalized, while Democrats have been in favor of relaxing the law. Fortunately, enough Republicans voted for the bill. Some have argued that the Republican change of heart is motivated by trying to lure the millennial demographic, “since the legalization of marijuana is a big issue with the millennials, So Republicans are now starting to ease up on their anti-marijuana rhetoric.”
It is also legal to fully purchase marijuana in four states for reasons other than medicinal use, but its full legalization is still prohibited by federal law. Bernie Sanders, who had sponsored legislation supporting states’ rights to legalize marijuana for medical use more than a decade ago, became the first candidate to endorse the full legalization of pot during the Democratic debate in October. Sanders rightfully sees our criminal justice system destroying too many lives by disproportionately mistreating non-violent drug offenders:
“I am seeing in this country too many lives being destroyed for non-violent offenses. We have a criminal justice system that lets CEOs on Wall Street walk away, and yet we are imprisoning or giving jail sentences to young people who are smoking marijuana. I think we have to think through this war on drugs…which has done an enormous amount of damage. We need to rethink our criminal justice system, we we’ve got a lot of work to do in that area.”
This is no doubt a turning point in legally allowing the use of pot to help people with legitimate medical needs for which the use of medicinal marijuana has been shown to provide relief. Perhaps, with the public in favor of full legalization of pot and politicians starting recognize how insidious it is to incarcerate non-violent drug offenders – principally people of color and minorities – full legalization is just around the corner.
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Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.