De-federalize pot, let states decide

Using a cockeyed logic, the U.S. Congress, in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, set the stage for the modern drug war by giving marijuana and heroin the same "most dangerous" Schedule I classification. In addition, the act declared both drugs lacking any known medical uses.

Today marijuana's guilt by association seems downright silly. After 40 years of rehabilitation and a new-found respectability in at least 25 states, marijuana's public image has matured. Heroin's has not. It is time to separate the two drugs, leaving heroin under federal control and passing marijuana regulation to the states.

Congress has steadfastly refused to revisit the status of marijuana while the states have served as public policy laboratories. One by one, the states, taking their policy making responsibilities seriously, have re-examined the status of marijuana again and again. Federal lawmakers, on the other hand, are hung up in a 1970's time warp.

A medical use? While heroin has been approved for limited medical use in several countries, the prospect for its legalization in the United States is dim. How about marijuana? Today, medical doctors in a growing number of states are authorizing the use marijuana to relieve pain, fight depression and activate appetites in chronically ill persons suffering from cancer and other life threatening conditions.

Unlike policymakers in Washington, in 19 states public policies now accept that marijuana does, in fact, have bona fide medical uses: Alaska Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington State.

A bill to legalize and regulate medical marijuana is now before the New York State legislature. And the following professional groups have expressed support for passage of the bill: the American Public Health Association, the American Bar Association, the New York Nurses Association, the New York AIDs Coalition and the Pharmacists Society of the State of New York.

A Criminal Offense? Once upon a time, both heroin and marijuana use could bring jail time in all 50 states. No more. First-time possession of a small amount of marijuana for personal use has been decriminalized and is now treated more or less like a traffic ticket in Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon and Rhode Island.

Heroin? No change.

Legalized? While 19 states have found a medical use for marijuana and 15 treat its possession much like a traffic ticket, Colorado has given marijuana a total reprieve from its 1970 misclassification. Not only is marijuana decriminalized in Colorado and approved for medical use, last November Coloradans passed a ballot initiative legalizing marijuana for recreational use as well. Further north, a ballot initiative legalizing recreational use of marijuana also passed in Washington state.

Easily Abused? Admittedly, all drugs, including both marijuana and heroin, can be abused. But so can the over-the-counter cigarette, legal for recreational use in all 50 states. In fact, a stronger case can be made that cigarettes, not marijuana, is a better fit for classification as a Schedule I substance, alongside heroin. Cigarettes kill thousands of Americans each year and, unlike marijuana, cigarettes have no redeeming medical value.

Ronald Fraser writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization. Write him at:


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