Cannabis should not be a controlled substance

Feds grappling with their own rules

Assistant Drug Czar Michael Botticelli
Leland Rucker | Boulder Weekly

As more state legislatures vote to allow medical marijuana use and research, and public approval in the United States for ending the federal ban on cannabis continues to rise, there is still much official opposition. And perhaps the most entrenched opponents are those in Washington actually charged with enforcing that federal ban.

Some of President Barack Obama’s own “drug abuse” advisers have publicly disagreed with his published comments that cannabis is no more dangerous than alcohol or other drugs. DEA chief Michele Leonhart reportedly told a law enforcement group in a speech a few days later that the president’s comments were reckless and irresponsible.

The schizophrenia in the executive branch’s oversight of cannabis has never been more apparent than during a Feb. 4 House Oversight Committee hearing on (what else?) the schizophrenia in the executive branch’s oversight of cannabis. At one point, Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly (D) questioned Michael Botticelli, the deputy director of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, on the harmfulness of cannabis in light of the president’s comments.

Connolly called himself “a child of the ’60s” and no advocate for the legalization of any drugs, but he’s serious that the federal government bases its drug policies on science, not politics. It’s an amazing nine minutes that anyone who cares about cannabis legalization needs to watch. It’s here. Taking advantage of the opportunity and armed with facts gleaned from government statistics, Connolly actually forces Botticelli to answer him, guiding him back to the question at hand when Botticelli tries to wander off.

What the interrogation outlines, in starkly human detail, is that, in spite of Obama’s comments, there are those in the White House who don’t, or possibly, can’t approach cannabis except in a negative light. It also shows the difficulty of getting anyone in the government — well, apparently beyond the president and attorney general — to actually analyze federal drug policies.

The key exchange is priceless:

Connolly: “How many people die from marijuana overdoses every year?”

Botticelli: “I don’t know that I know. It is very rare.”

Connolly: “Very rare. Now let’s contrast that with prescription drugs, unintentional deaths from prescription drugs. One American dies every 19 minutes. Nothing comparable to marijuana. Is that correct?”

Botticelli: “Correct.”

Connolly: “Alcohol — hundreds of thousands of people die every year from alcohol-related deaths: automobile accidents, liver disease, esophageal cancer, blood poisoning. Is that correct?” Botticelli: “I think the way you have to look at this is the totality of harm associated with this substance and to basically say that even though it doesn’t have the lethality of those other drugs. I think it’s the significant public health effects of the drug.”

Connolly: “I guess I’m sticking with the president — the head of your administration — who is making a different point. He is making a point that is empirically true. That isn’t a normative statement that marijuana is good or bad, but he was contrasting it with alcohol and empirically he is correct, is he not?”

Botticelli begins to reiterate the “public health” argument.

Connolly: “Is it not a scientific fact that there is nothing comparable with marijuana? And I’m not saying it is good or bad, but when we look at deaths and illnesses, alcohol and other hard drugs are certainly — even prescription drugs — are a threat to public health in a way that just, isolated, marijuana is not. Isn’t that a scientific fact? Or do you dispute that fact?”

Botticelli: “I don’t dispute that fact.”

Since being added to the Schedule I classification under the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, cannabis has been considered a drug equally as addicting as heroin and even more dangerous than cocaine or methamphetamine. Connolly, again using the government’s own facts and figures, suggests that perhaps the classification should be re-examined.

But if you work for the DEA or in the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, apparently you can’t even consider the growing evidence that cannabinoids provide benefits that even medical doctors are now acknowledging. Though it has a facility in Mississippi that grows it, the government won’t provide cannabis for researchers who want to study its medical properties. The Institute for Drug Abuse is just that. It doesn’t study drug use — only drug abuse.

There is some thawing. A bipartisan group of congresspeople that includes Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) is supporting bills that would give cannabusinesses the same tax opportunities as any other enterprise. Others are seeing the evil behind arresting and incarcerating Americans, mostly those of color, for simply using cannabis. The recent Farm Bill allows the production of hemp to begin again in a few states after a 70-year limbo because the government wasn’t able to distinguish it from marijuana. As Connolly noted, almost half the country is now allowing medical cannabis.

After mentioning Just Say No and other failed prohibitive drug campaigns and programs over the decades, the representative from Virginia concludes that the war on drugs hasn’t worked very well — either in influencing public opinion or in curbing demand for the product. He notes that other campaigns, for tobacco and alcohol that are voluntary, actually have worked to lower demand and satisfied public opinion.

“Maybe we could learn something from that,” the representative intones.

I’m not holding my breath.

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