Harsh marijuana laws go up in smoke | Newswise

BYLINE: Michael R. Malone

Newswise — The federal government recently initiated the formal rulemaking process to reclassify marijuana from Schedule I—listed on a par with heroin, cocaine, LSD, and a cache of other banned substances—to Schedule III. The move, another step in the process endorsed last year by the Department of Health and Human Services and proposed last month by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), recognizes the plant’s medicinal value. 

“For 50 years—a really long time—cannabis has been sitting right next to heroin [in terms of policy], so now we’re grateful to move away from that and get more into the medicinal potential,” said Denise Vidot, an associate professor in the School of Nursing and Health Studies at the University of Miami.

Vidot, a cannabis and psychedelics epidemiologist certified in cannabis patient care and director of community and stakeholder engagement at the University’s Clinical Translational Science Institute, highlighted that “we’ve had decades of research” documenting cannabis’s medicinal value but societal stigmas have lingered, stemming any policy shifts. 

“Similar to the results my lab has been documenting, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has been publishing results of its funded research showing the medicinal properties of cannabis use—and the more evidence the better,” said Vidot, whose research studies the impact of phytocannabinoids in cannabis on human health. 

Craig Trocino, an associate professor of clinical legal education in the School of Law, likewise suggested the move to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level is long overdue. 

“American’s attitudes toward cannabis have evolved,” he said. “Twenty-four states have complete legalization (it’s on the upcoming ballot in Florida and other states), and there wasn’t an Armageddon. Before Colorado (first state to legalize in 2012), there were many articles that the sky is going to turn to sackcloth, cats and dogs are going to be living together, and society as we know it will end.” 

Yet none of those horrors happened, and instead, Colorado has reaped a massive increase in marijuana tax revenue, he noted. 

“And in the current 38 states that have medical legalization, PTSD, epilepsy, and other patients are benefitting from marijuana use, getting life altering—and in some cases, lifesaving medication—that they wouldn’t otherwise get,” Trocino added. 

Trocino, who directs Miami Law’s Innocence Clinic, suggested that the reclassification should have happened decades ago. He highlighted the impact of criminalization on generations of lives, owing to government policy that was in large part politically motivated. 

“When we can look back to the genesis of the war on drugs, we find that the [Richard] Nixon administration [1969-1974] was intent on breaking the back of the anti-war movement,” he noted. “It was not unknown that there was a lot of use of marijuana and psychedelics as part of the student anti-war protests, and the administration saw the drug war as a way to go after these people and arrest them for that.” 

Marijuana was lumped into the schedule with the main drugs of abuse from the 1940s-1960s—serious hard narcotics, morphine, and codeine, Trocino explained. 

“The war on drugs just got tied up into that and the infrastructure built around it, and once a ship like that is on course it gets really hard to turn,” Trocino said. 

In emphasizing also that “the long issue of racial component of illegalization of marijuana persists,” Trocino cited data documenting that 43 percent of all drug arrests in the U.S. are marijuana arrests, and 89 percent of those are possession only. 

Black and white Americans use marijuana at almost identical levels, but Blacks are 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. 

“That’s over 600,000 arrests [in 2020] nationwide for possession at a cost of $3.6 billion,” noted Trocino, detailing the “rough financial costs” alone of employing police, jail and prison staff, prosecutors and defense attorneys, court reporters, judges, and security. 

“There’s a myriad of things that we could do with $3.6 billion—pay cops more, train them better, fund programs that foster education—other than spending the time, money, and resources arresting people and putting them through the system,” he said. “Remove 600,000 people from the gears of the criminal justice system in a year and that opens up the system to deal with a lot of different things.” 

Vidot noted that her studies validate claims that, due to enhanced growing methods, the THC content, the principal psychoactive element in the plant, is significantly more potent today than in the past. 

Her study participants, who use cannabis for medical reasons, are showing high levels of THC concentration and little, if not any, CBD (medicinal). 

“In the market, THC seems to be one of these things that is marketed as ‘good cannabis’ to consumers—i.e. more potent—which is not always true,” Vidot said. “Growers now have that opportunity to change the structure of the plant to respond to what consumers are looking for. 

“That’s one of the reasons we’re having challenges in our cannabis results because not only are people different, but how the plant is grown is also so diverse,” she said. 

Vidot, who has been researching the medicinal aspects of cannabis for more than a decade, has been watching and waiting for the government to reclassify cannabis. 

During the pandemic in many states with medical and/or nonmedical cannabis regulatory frameworks, cannabis stores were considered essential businesses and remained open throughout “stay-at-home” orders. 

Given that shift, Vidot was able to expand her research to study the effect of cannabis on COVID-19 patients, along with cancer and HIV patients. Her lab has grown to now include some 60 student researchers. 

“It makes me happy that those students won’t have to deal with the same type of stigmas that I had to deal with—and with that alone, we’re winning,” she said. 

Given the requirements set by the DEA, the costs of operating a lab to study a Schedule I drug run into the millions of dollars, according to Vidot. A Schedule III substance has far less stringent requirements—and a far lesser cost.

“My lab is already ready. We have proposals written, and we’re ready to go,” she said. “Once the reclassification comes, the first thing I’m doing is applying for a DEA Schedule III license to do research—that’s first on my agenda.” 

She celebrated the recent government announcement yet insisted that more needs to be done. 

“Considering the 50-year tenure we’ve had, it’s wonderful, but there is a plethora of data—a majority of which is conducted by NIH—that is pointing to a potential to ‘deschedule’ cannabis, i.e. remove it from the schedule platform. 

“I implore politicians and policymakers to look into declassification,” Vidot said. “That also will give a lot of opportunities for us to educate and empower the communities without forcing it to be in these institutionally federal regulated institutions. I do recognize, though, that it’s one step at a time.”

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