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The Case for Marijuana

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y Joshua de Leon

United States Attorney General Eric Holder addressed the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates in San Francisco last August and announced a complete overhaul of the federal drug prosecution process. In his address, Holder said that there were plans to “take bold steps to reform and strengthen America’s criminal justice system.”

Holder called into question the effectiveness of the current system in place for charging, prosecuting, and sentencing non-violent drug offenders. He said, “As the so-called ‘war on drugs’ enters its fifth decade … we need to ask whether it … [has] been truly effective.” Holder has called upon both sides of the aisle to come together in a bipartisan effort to rectify the broken criminal justice system that sentences non-violent offenders like they are murderers and rapists.

As it currently stands, America accounts for only five percent of the world’s population, but incarcerates 25 percent of the world’s criminals. In order to offset these extreme statistics, Holder has “mandated a modification to the Justice Department’s charging policies so that certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders … will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences.”

[sws_pullquote_right]Follow our continuing coverage:

Medical Marijuana: When is it Coming to Your State?

The New York Times Calls for Marijuana Legalization

[/sws_pullquote_right] Holder said that by only giving higher, more severe penalties to violent criminals, law enforcement on all government levels can “better promote public safety, deterrence, and rehabilitation.” He proposed lowering drug sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, citing overcrowded prisons and the expense required to fund the current system designed for drug offenders. Since the beginning of the “War on Drugs” 40 years ago, taxpayers have wasted $1 trillion on law enforcement, judicial proceedings, and incarceration for drug offenders. However, the flow of illegal drugs into the country remains strong.

“This overreliance on incarceration is not just financially unsustainable, it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate,” said Holder.

The “human and moral costs” that Holder referred to were the instances where minor and nonviolent drug offenders serve near-life sentences. Comparably, these types of offenders typically serve longer jail sentences than murderers, rapists, and other violent criminals. The number of inmates jailed for drug offenses remains around 50 percent. As of 2000, the population of drug offenders in lockup had increased from 74,276 to 97,472 over 10 years.

Holder’s proposal would affect 70% of drug cases brought by federal prosecutors and is expected to decrease the prison population by three percent over five years, about 6,550 inmates. It would also reduce the amount of prison time for drug traffickers by 11 months. The proposal doesn’t affect all drug offenders, however. Holder still believes that “dangerous and violent drug traffickers” should receive the harshest penalties.

Current mandatory minimum sentencing dictates that drug offenders convicted of cocaine possession exceeding 500 grams must serve 63–78 months in prison. The proposal reduces those terms to 51–63 months.

Clemency program

The U.S. Department of Justice recently announced that it would release expanded criteria by which non-violent drug offenders will be granted clemency. The criteria will focus on inmates who were incarcerated for crack offenses before President Obama signed the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act. This criteria is important because the inmates it seeks to release are serving long prison sentences for simple drug possession charges. Ultimately, the DOJ has decided that the harsh punishments handed to these inmates don’t fit the crime.

This clemency is the latest initiative spawned by Holder’s address to overhaul the country’s prosecution of non-violent drug offenders. Alongside clemency, the DOJ plans include lightening mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders.

[sws_pullquote_right] If a suspect takes a case to trial and loses, that person will most likely receive the maximum sentence [/sws_pullquote_right]

The United States spends billions of dollars annually on the long-running, stalemated war on drugs. The inmates who will be granted clemency deserve to be released as they have fallen victim to the criminal justice system of old, with its “draconian mandatory minimum sentences.”

A recent study published by Human Rights Watch indicates that only three percent of drug suspects refuse a plea deal and choose to take their cases to trial. This remarkably low number is because the criminal justice system, specifically with drug crimes, is essentially set up to force drug suspects into pleading guilty without a trial.

If a suspect takes a case to trial and loses, that person will most likely receive the maximum sentence for his or her crime. Essentially, the suspects are being punished for exercising their right to a trial and using the judicial system for its intended purpose. The courts seem to already see drug trials as a waste of time because it’s as if they view them as a misallocation of state and federal resources.

According to the study, suspects who lost their trials received sentences that were three times harsher than similar cases in which the accused took a plea deal. Human Rights Watch released the study only months after the recent announcement by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

In the 1980s, during the height of the crack epidemic, the Justice Department started to enact mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenders. But all that measure has done is overcrowd our prisons and dump billions of dollars into an already stagnant and fruitless 50-year drug war.

Marijuana & Crime

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and 17 fellow congressional members sent a letter to President Obama calling upon the president to have the Drug Enforcement Administration change marijuana’s categorization.

The letter illustrated the nonsensical nature of listing marijuana as a Schedule I narcotic, a classification reserved for substances deemed as having no medical use with a high potential for abuse. As decades of marijuana research shows, marijuana’s current classification is wrong. Other Schedule I drugs include heroin and ecstasy. Cocaine and methamphetamine are listed as Schedule II narcotics, yet these substances are far more dangerous.

These congressional members want Obama to push U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder into directing the U.S. Department of Justice to rank marijuana at least as a Schedule III drug, where it would be defined as having “a moderate to low potential for physical and psychological dependence.”

One congressional member who signed the letter was Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN). He and Rep. Blumenauer recently questioned deputy drug czar Michael Botticelli, who dodged straightforward questions regarding during a Government Oversight Reform Committee hearing about the “dangers” of marijuana.

Botticelli was unable to candidly answer the representatives’ questions about marijuana’s death rate: there is no death rate. This is possibly because his answers could be considered as lending support to marijuana, which the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) is prohibited from doing.

[sws_pullquote_right] Botticelli’s inability to respond candidly at the hearing highlights the deep need for reform to the way conversations about marijuana occur in our legislative bodies. [/sws_pullquote_right]

The letter also noted the excruciatingly absurd amount of money that the federal government spends on marijuana law enforcement. A study by Harvard lecturer Jeffrey Miron showed that the country loses out on almost $20 billion every year because of marijuana prohibition. Law enforcement itself costs about $8.7 billion, and that same amount could be generated annually from taxes placed on legal marijuana.

The letter points out the large racial disparity among marijuana arrests in America. The rate of marijuana use among blacks and whites is very similar. However, the American Civil Liberties Union found that blacks are four times more likely to get arrested for marijuana than whites. The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 2011 Uniform Crime Report showed that 750,000 people are arrested for marijuana each year, one arrest every 42 seconds.

Botticelli’s inability to respond candidly at the hearing highlights the deep need for reform to the way conversations about marijuana occur in our legislative bodies. To address one of these issues, Rep. Cohen drafted the Unmuzzle the Drug Czar Act, which will change the current provision of the ONDCP Reauthorization Act of 1998 that bans drug czars from studying marijuana. During the hearing, Cohen told Botticelli that he “should be able to participate and set our drug policy straight. Your job should be to have a sane drug policy, not to be muzzled and handcuffed.”

Emotionally fueled propaganda

Because the ONDCP is barred from studying objective and empirical scientific evidence regarding marijuana, the agency has instead lent itself to emotionally fueled propaganda about drug use. This perpetuates the dishonest and flimsy foundation upon which the federal government has constructed its marijuana laws, which have created enforcement deficits, racial disparity in law enforcement, and a general misleading of the American public. But Colorado is looking to help set the record straight, eliminating the negative stigma surrounding legal marijuana.

New numbers from the Colorado Department of Revenue and the Denver Police Department show that since legal marijuana became available to Colorado residents, the money’s been rolling in and crime has decreased.

Marijuana revenue in Colorado has been increasing by the millions each month. In January and February, legal marijuana sales sat around $14 million. The following month, in March, sales increased sharply to $19 million. Denver, Colorado’s largest city, has enjoyed most of that revenue as it carries 58 percent of the state’s marijuana retail licenses.

It seems that the projections made by several groups that legal marijuana will bring in massive amounts of money are proving to be true. Projections made at the end of 2013 estimated that $2.34 billion of legally purchased marijuana will be sold by this year’s end. The figure includes medical marijuana, as well as legal recreational marijuana.

Numbers released by the Denver police show optimistic appraisals of recreational marijuana. Compared to the same time frame last year, violent crime decreased by 506 percent. These crimes include robbery, assault, and murder. Property crimes, such as burglary, larceny, and theft from cars, experienced an 11.4 percent decrease.

It should be noted that correlation doesn’t equal causation. However, the correlation is worth paying attention to enough over time to see if recreational marijuana legalization has any causal effect on crime at all. One thing is for certain, though. According to the Journal of Adolescent Health, loosened marijuana law did not lead to increased use among teens. The 20-year study sampling more than 11 million teens revealed consistent rates of use, regardless of legislation.

Colorado Has the Solution

Before going into effect on January 1, legal marijuana in Colorado carried high expectations of bringing in massive tax revenue for the state. The actual benefits have been more than what financial forecasters have expected, and certain responsibilities have now been placed on the state of Colorado in light of marijuana legalization.

Because legal marijuana has exceeded presumed tax estimates, the governor of Colorado has proposed increased funding for drug prevention programs. Gov. John Hickenlooper release a budget proposal yesterday that will allot $99 million for drug use programs for the state, among other programs for the next fiscal year.

Colorado marijuana sales are expected to break above $610 million the next fiscal year.

The proposal would place a 12.9 percent sales tax on the sale of recreational legal marijuana. The current rate of sales with the 12.9 percent tax will allow legal marijuana to surpass the originally predicted amount of $70 million in excise taxes.

The programs in Hickenlooper’s plan include $45.5 million for youth use prevention, $40.4 million for general substance abuse treatment, and $12.4 million directed towards public health.

Hickenlooper proposed a three-year- long media campaign about marijuana that some say will highlight possible health risks of marijuana to raise public awareness. Also, the Colorado Department of Transportation will receive $1.9 million to fund a “Drive High, Get a DUI” campaign to protect consumers and non-consumers of marijuana on Colorado’s roads. The governor also wants to use $7 million to create room for 105 more people in residential substance abuse treatment centers.

[sws_pullquote_right] Colorado is on the right track to setting the proper example for other states and the federal government to begin legalizing marijuana [/sws_pullquote_right]

The entire country is indeed watching Colorado, which is still in the midst of excitement created by the legal pot laws. The passage and implementation of the law was a huge cause for celebration in the state, as well as for Washington. But being the first, these states now have the responsibility of setting the example for the rest of the country on how to successfully and safely regulate the use of legal marijuana.

If Colorado were to completely botch the implementation of legal marijuana laws and drop the ball on proper enforcement and public awareness, other states would be very reluctant to follow suit in legalizing marijuana.

But with the proposals put forth by Gov. Hickenlooper, Colorado is on the right track to setting the proper example for other states and the federal government to begin legalizing marijuana. As it has turned out, a majority of Americans support marijuana legalization.

A Gallup poll shows that the majority of Americans today support marijuana legalization at 58 percent. These numbers mark the first time that most of the country is behind legislation that would legalize pot. When this poll was first taken in 1969, only 12 percent favored it.

It took eight years before support more than doubled to 28 percent in 1977. It then dipped slightly toward the beginning of the 1980s and remained steady until about 1996. Pollsters at Gallup believe that the recent surge of support, 10 percentage points in the last year (the largest jump proportionally ever), is because of the successful efforts in Colorado and Washington to fully legalize marijuana.

Looking at the poll from the party-politics standpoint, opinions among the Republicans and Democrats have remained pretty consistent, comparatively. However, what helped marijuana’s favorability gained steam was growing support among independents, which is now at 62 percent, a 12 point jump from last November. What is, perhaps, the most interesting finding of the poll is that, although still mostly opposed to legalization, support among those age 65 and older increased 14 points in the last two years.

Since 1969, support for legal marijuana has mostly been on a steady incline with a huge spike in the last year. If trends are any indicator, the only way for legal marijuana support to go is up. The only group that seems to be avidly against legalization is the DEA.

Marijuana = Good Medicine

A recent survey found that a majority of doctors would approve the use of medical marijuana. The survey, conducted by The New England Journal of Medicine, determined that 76 percent of doctors, when faced with a hypothetical-patient scenario, were in favor of using marijuana for medicinal purposes despite the fact that marijuana is illegal in most countries.

The proposed scenario was this: Your patient is a 68-year-old woman with metastatic breast cancer. Should she be prescribed medical marijuana to help alleviate her symptoms?

Physicians in favor of using medical marijuana in this case focused on their “responsibility as caregivers to alleviate suffering,” the results stated. Those physicians pointed to the “known dangers of prescription narcotics, supported patient choice, or described personal experience with patients who benefited from the use of marijuana” as reasons for their choice.

[sws_pullquote_right] Marijuana is the most commonly used illegal drug in the United States [/sws_pullquote_right]

Those opposing the use of medical marijuana pointed to the “lack of evidence [of effectiveness], the lack of provenance, inconsistency of dosage, and concern about side effects.” A common question in the debate was whether marijuana even belongs under the scope of influence of doctors, or whether it should be legalized and patients allowed to decide for themselves whether to make use of it or not, according to The New England Journal of Medicine.

Interestingly, the survey seemed to incite stronger opinions from U.S. physicians than from those in other parts of the world. A total of 1446 votes were cast from 72 countries and 56 states and provinces in North America, with 1063 coming from the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

Marijuana is the most commonly used illegal drug in the United States, according to the 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). Proponents of the use of medical marijuana believe it to be a “safe and effective treatment for the symptoms of cancers, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, pain, glaucoma, and epilepsy,” among other conditions.

The American Medical Association has called for the government to review marijuana’s status as a federal Schedule I controlled substance, to facilitate “the conduct of clinical research and development of cannabinoid-based medicines, and alternate delivery methods.”

One Arizona family, with inspiration from another family in Colorado, helped drive those methods.

Jennifer and Jacob Welton of Mesa, Arizona filed a lawsuit demanding that the state of Arizona alter the provision that dictates how medical marijuana is administered to patients. The reason being that they will be able to treat their five-year-old son Zander’s severe seizures.

The Arizona law legalizing medical marijuana limited its form to any variation of the actual marijuana flower itself. However, a brain surgery procedure last year rendered the boy unable to eat, so the once effective method of grinding the plant and mixing it with applesauce is obsolete. The only other way for the family to provide their son with the medicine he needs is through marijuana oil extracts.

The Weltons had tried other pharmaceutical routes, but none worked as well as marijuana.

Medical marijuana has proven successful in treating severe seizures in small children in the past. In Colorado, six-year-old Charlotte Figi had been suffering from grand mal seizures since she was three months old. By age three, she suffered up to 300 seizures a week. By the time she was five, her parents, Matt and Paige, had placed Charlotte under a slew of pharmaceutical therapies, none of which were effective.

The Figis caught wind of a boy with the same condition being treated with medical marijuana to great success. They tried marijuana therapy on Charlotte, by administering the oil extract, and it worked. What made the therapy successful was the strain of marijuana given to Charlotte.

This particular strain was uncommon because unlike most strains, which have a higher content in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical that gets people high, this strain had a very low THC content. In this case, the active chemical that tapered the seizures was cannabidiol (CBD). According to scientists, CBD works by minimizing the overage of the brain’s electric and chemical impulses which caused the seizures. Since therapy, Charlotte has only two or three seizures a month.

It was so successful that the growers who provided the Figis with the previously unpopular, unnamed strain started calling it Charlotte’s Web. CNN filmed a documentary about Charlotte’s condition and success with medical marijuana, which reached the Weltons in Arizona and prompted them to seek marijuana therapy for Zander.

Alongside epilepsy, pain, and chemotherapy relief, marijuana’s psychoactive effects may pose beneficial to those suffering from certain mental illnesses.

Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, says there is a strong possibility that marijuana could also be the next leap forward in treating anxiety. Anxiety disorders are recognized as medical issues in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In the past, research that explored the link between marijuana and anxiety reduction came inconclusive. Recently, researchers at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center revisited the topic using newly available knowledge and resources. Many species of mammals’ bodies create endocannabinoids called type-1 cannabinoid receptors (CB1) which are found on nerve cells.

The endocannabinoid system is vital in brain development, the body’s immunity, and physiological processes in stress response. CB1 receptors also interact with delta-9- tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active, psychoactive chemical in marijuana.

Mice have a CB1 receptor system similar to that of humans in the central amygdala, which controls our anxiety and the body’s stress responses. When we are exposed to stress, our naturally-produced endocannabinoids interact with the CB1 receptors in the central amygdala to calm the excited neurons in our brains, researchers found.

THC, a cannabinoid like our endocannabinoids, was then hypothesized to produce the same effect on our CB1 receptors by settling overactive brain neurons. However, this finding is brand new, and further research is required to solidify it as fact, Collins said.

While a recent study finds that a majority of physicians in the United States would prescribe medical marijuana to their patients, politics in the United States continue to prevent research on the short and long-term effects of marijuana in clinical settings. Due to the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, marijuana was placed in the most restrictive use category, Schedule I, which classifies it as a drug with no medicinal value and high potential for abuse.

That means that marijuana is classified as being potentially more harmful and addictive, and having less medicinal value than cocaine, meth, methadone, OxyContin, and countless other prescription drugs that often have far more harmful effects than beneficial ones. This classification still stands, despite the fact that statistics show pharmaceuticals kill far more Americans than illegal drugs.

The issue has become so severe that two years ago, the U.S. government created an action plan, Epidemic: Responding to America’s Prescription Drug Abuse Crisis, to address the problem. Yet Americans continue to be inundated with prescription drugs for anything that ails them, and the FDA approves these drugs despite dangerous and sometimes deadly side effects.

In a vicious cycle that benefits the consumer least of all, corporate pharmaceutical criminals, who are in bed with the regulating industry, push dangerous products onto the market and make obscene profits, while medical marijuana is classified as one of the  most dangerous and addictive drugs in existence. This classification in turn makes it difficult for scientists to even study marijuana’s potential benefits, allowing opponents of the drug to continue to tout the mantra that there is insufficient research to meet FDA standards.

Although it is encouraging that 18 states and the District of Columbia now allow the use of medical marijuana in certain cases, scientists have a difficult time studying the drug due to federal laws that make it difficult to obtain legal supplies. In order to get a legal supply for study, researchers must obtain a license from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), a difficult process that often ends in rejection.

In 2008, the American College of Physicians noted that “Unfortunately, research expansion has been hindered by a complicated federal approval process, limited availability of research- grade marijuana, and the debate over legalization.”

Marijuana has been used for its beneficial medicinal purposes for centuries. But many Americans still prefer to demonize the drug, probably while consuming prescription pills.

In the meantime, the DEA keeps medical marijuana research tied up, and pharmaceutical giants continue putting profit over human lives. As Mercola reports, “Fraud, kickbacks, price-setting, bribery and illegal sales activities are all par for the course for big-name drug companies.”

The Only Color That Matters Is Green

Since several states have seen loosening marijuana laws, legalizing it for medical use and, in Colorado and Washington, recreational use, the marijuana market has been gaining steam.

Experts have predicted almost $1.5 billion in legal pot sales for 2014, but by 2015, that number may go up $2.34 billion, a 64 percent increase.

The marijuana market looks so financially promising that private investors are wanting to put some of their money into the market as it in a position to one of, if not the, fastest growing market in the country. The Huffington Post reported that the marijuana market is on the fast track to surpass the smartphone market in terms of expansion.

If 14 more states legalize recreational marijuana over the next five years, as reports are predicting, the marijuana market could enjoy an increase up to $10.2 billion.

The problem is that there isn’t really any “marijuana lobby” to speak of, but there is a massive pharmaceutical lobby to contend with in Washington, D.C. And since medical marijuana would severely cut into the profits of big pharma, they won’t allow universal decriminalization happen without a fight.

Luckily for consumers, the DOJ is not (currently) on the side of the pharmaceutical industry, and the American public certainly is not. Only time will tell if drug company money is enough to overcome popular opinion and common sense policy making.

Joshua DeLeon is a senior writer and content manager for Ring of Fire. Josh has a B.A. in English Literature, and currently runs online operations for Ring of Fire. Additional reporting by Alisha Mims.

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