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Obama Administration Won’t Block State Marijuana Laws

The Obama administration has given a tentative green light to marijuana legalization in states, weighing in on the growing issue related to the legalization of the drug in Colorado and Washington. Since 20 states (and the District of Colombia) have passed laws allowing for the medical use of the drug, the issue is a symptom of the growing dissatisfaction with the prohibitive “war on drugs” approach to legislation. The move undoubtedly has staunch critics, but when it comes to a sensible approach to dealing with users of drugs, it’s a definitive step in the right direction.

The (Mostly) Legal History of Marijuana

It may come as a surprise to learn that for the majority of American (and human) history, marijuana was not illegal. With first indications of its use dating to 2700 BC in China, and its introduction into the U.S. (Jamestown) in 1611, it’s a drug humanity is extremely familiar with. In fact, the first law passed relating to marijuana was actually telling farmers to grow a specific type of hemp (another product of the cannabis plant). For about 100 years of American medical history (1850 to 1942) it was listed as an official medicine to treat anxiety and to improve appetite.

It was effectively made illegal in 1937, but the American Medical Association critiqued the decision at the time. It was classed as a Schedule I Controlled Substance in 1970, meaning it was determined to have no potential for medical usage. Put into context of the drug’s history, this move seems a little puzzling. Until you learn that Dr. Roger Edeberg, who originally recommended the change, only did so as a temporary measure, until more evidence was obtained.

The Argument for Legalization

The basic premise behind the argument in favor of the legalization of marijuana is that it isn’t a particularly dangerous substance. Overdosing is a physical impossibility. In addition, the drug is only considered to be psychologically addictive, which isn’t ideal but also isn’t too much to worry about when considered in comparison with the risks of nicotine and alcohol addiction. In comparison, around half of the people who smoke tobacco will die as a result, and alcohol killed over 25,000 people in the U.S. in 2010. Last—but not least—if marijuana is psychologically addictive for some people, it’s better to give those people the help they need than to punish them as “criminals.” The “war on drugs” does not work.

Colorado, Washington and Medical Marijuana

These are the facts that have driven Colorado and Washington to pass landmark measures in 2012 legalizing use of the drug. This is a controversial decision, but it is one many people support. Medical use of marijuana is legal in numerous states, thanks to its benefits for many conditions including glaucoma, nerve damage, improving appetite in HIV patients and movement disorders. The drug is used because it’s generally well-tolerated, so while there may be pharmaceutical options that are more effective, there are fewer side effects when using marijuana so it’s often a preferable approach.

The decision wasn’t an easy one for the federal government, but the administration has finally revealed its hand on the topic. President Obama indicated the likely direction of the decision after the ballot measures passed, saying, “It does not make sense, from a prioritization point of view, for us to focus on recreational drug users in a state that has already said that’s legal.” In line with this comment, the message given in the announcement was that states are free to experiment with marijuana legalization with certain reservations. Since the ballot measures passed in Colorado and Washington were in direct opposition to federal law, the administration could have sued to block the efforts.

The president outlined eight key points for state law enforcement officials to focus on when it comes to marijuana, including prosecuting anyone who sells the drug to minors, anyone who grows it on public land, and in any situation in which the funds from marijuana are used for criminal activity. Overall, the message is that as long as those key areas aren’t ignored and the legalization is well-controlled, there will be no intervention from the federal government.

Ringing in the End of the War on Drugs?

This is a landmark moment for drug legislation because it shows the federal government acknowledging and acting on the idea that the “war on drugs” does not work. The recreational use of marijuana can be damaging in some cases—just like the recreational use of alcohol can be—but doing it doesn’t make one a criminal. Those who develop serious problems need help, not jail, and it’s clear that there are much bigger priorities at the moment in terms of addiction, such as the growing problem of prescription drug abuse

There is still hope.

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