NORML reviews the top news stories of 2015.
#1 Congress Reauthorizes Medical Marijuana Protections
Members of Congress approved language in the fiscal year 2016 omnibus spending bill that continues to limit the federal government from taking punitive action against state-licensed individuals or operations that are acting are in full compliance with the medical marijuana laws of their states. The provisions reauthorize Section 538 of the Continuing Appropriations Act of 2015, which states, "None of the funds made available in this act to the Department of Justice may be used … to prevent … states … from implementing their own state laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana."
#2 Federal Judge Upholds Marijuana’s Schedule I Status
A federal judge in April rejected a motion challenging the constitutionality of cannabis’ classification as a Schedule I prohibited substance. "At some point in time, a court may decide this status to be unconstitutional," Judge Kimberly Mueller said from the bench. "But this is not the court and not the time." Judge Meuller had presided over five days of hearings in October 2014 in a challenge brought by members of the NORML Legal Committee.
#3 Medical Cannabis Access Associated With Less Opioid Abuse
States that permit qualified patients to access medical marijuana via dispensaries possess lower rates of opioid addiction and overdose deaths, according to a study published in July by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a non-partisan think-tank. The findings mirror those published in 2014 in The Journal of the American Medical Association concluding, "States with medical cannabis laws had a 24.8 percent lower mean annual opioid overdose mortality rate compared with states without medical cannabis laws."
#4 DC Depenalizes Marijuana; Arrests Plummet
Despite threats from members of Congress, District officials implemented voter-approved legislation earlier this year eliminating penalties associated with the possession and cultivation of personal use quantities of marijuana by adults. Following the law’s implementation, marijuana-related arrests in the nation’s capital fell 99 percent.
#5 Marijuana Law Changes Don’t Change Youth Use, Attitudes
Rates of youth marijuana use are unaffected by changing laws, according to data published in July in The American Journal of drug and Alcohol Abuse. Investigators evaluated trends in young people’s attitudes toward cannabis and their use of the substance during the years 2002 to 2013 – a time period where 14 states enacted laws legalizing the medical use of the plant, and two states approved its recreational use by adults. "Our results may suggest that recent changes in public policy, including the decriminalization, medicalization, and legalization of marijuana in cities and states across the country, have not resulted in more use or greater approval of marijuana use among younger adolescents," researchers reported.
#6 Gallup Poll: More Americans Than Ever Say Marijuana Should Be Legal
Fifty-eight percent of Americans believe that "the use of marijuana should be made legal," according to nationwide survey data released in October by Gallup pollsters. The percentage ties the highest level of support ever reported by Gallup, which has been measuring Americans’ attitudes toward cannabis since the late 1960s. The percentage is more than twice the level of support reported in the mid-1990s.
#7 Study: Marijuana Use Not Associated With Changes In Brain Morphology
Marijuana use is not associated with structural changes in the brain, according to imaging data published in January in The Journal of Neuroscience. Investigators assessed brain morphology in both daily adult and adolescent cannabis users compared to non-users. They found "no statistically significant differences … between daily users and nonusers on volume or shape in the regions of interest" after researchers controlled for participants’ use of alcohol. "[T]he results indicate that, when carefully controlling for alcohol use, gender, age, and other variables, there is no association between marijuana use and standard volumetric or shape measurements of subcortical structures," researchers reported.
#8 Marijuana Consumers Less Likely To Be Obese, Suffer Diabetes Risk
Those who consume cannabis are 50 percent less likely to suffer from metabolic syndrome as compared to those who do not, according to findings published in November in The American Journal of Medicine. Metabolic syndrome is a group of risk factors, including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, unhealthy cholesterol levels, and abdominal fat, which are linked to increased risk of heart disease and adult onset diabetes, among other serious health consequences. The findings are similar to those of previous studies reporting that those who use cannabis are less likely to be obese or suffer from diabetes.
#9 NHTSA: THC-Positive Drivers Don’t Possesses Elevated Crash Risk
Drivers who test positive for the presence of THC in their blood are no more likely to be involved in motor vehicle crashes than are drug-free drivers, according to a case-control study released in February by the United States National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration. Authors reported that drivers who tested positive for the presence of THC possessed an unadjusted, elevated risk of accident of 25 percent (Odds Ratio=1.25) compared to controls (drivers who tested negative for any drug or alcohol). However, this elevated risk became insignificant (OR=1.05) after investigators adjusted for demographic variables, such as the drivers’ age and gender. The study is the largest of its kind ever conducted in the United States.
#10 Legal Marijuana States Collect Over $200 Million In New Tax Revenue
Taxes on the legal production and sale of cannabis in the states of Colorado and Washington have yielded over $200 million in new revenue since going into effect in 2014, according to calculations reported by The Huffington Post in September. Colorado collected more than $117 million dollars from marijuana sales while Washington collected over $83 million. Cannabis sales commenced in Oregon in on October 1, 2015 and have yet to begin in Alaska.
The director of the US National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), Nora Volkow, believes that cannabidiol (CBD) – a nonpsychotropic cannabinoid – is “a safe drug with no addictive effects.” Volkow made the comments in an op-ed published by The Huffington Post.
Volkow further acknowledged, “[P]reliminary data suggest that it may have therapeutic value for a number of medical conditions.”
Preclinical studies have documented CBD to possess a variety of therapeutic activities, including anti-cancer properties, anti-diabetic properties, and bone-stimulating activity. Clinical and observational trials have documented the substance to possess anxiolytic, anti-psychotic, and anti-seizure activity in humans. Safety trials have further concluded the substance to be “safe and well tolerated” when administered to healthy subjects.
To date, 15 states have enacted laws specifically permitting the possession of high-CBD formulated extracts for therapeutic purposes, primarily for the treatment of pediatric epilepsy.
In a recent Time Magazine op-ed, Democrat Sen. Diane Feinstein (CA) and Republican Sen. Charles Grassley (IA) encouraged the Obama administration to “definitively determine if CBD has scientific and medical benefits,” and to “look at expanding compassionate access programs where possible, to benefit as many children as possible.”
Under federal law, CBD — like cannabis — is defined as a Schedule I controlled substance with “a high potential for abuse … no currently accepted medical use, … [and] a lack of accepted safety for the use of the drug … under medical supervision.”
Several mainstream media outlets are reporting that the US Department of Health and Human Services has removed a requirement mandating that all investigative protocols seeking cannabis for clinical study must undergo a Public Health Service review. The review process, which was enacted in 1999 and applied only to clinical studies involving cannabis, was long criticized by advocates as unnecessarily burdensome and time-consuming.
Commenting on the change, a Health and Human Services spokeswoman said, “The department expects the action announced today will help facilitate further research to advance our understanding about the health risks and any potential benefits of medications using marijuana or its components or derivatives.”
But as I point out in today’s news wire coverage here, such claims are likely overstated.
That is because unique hurdles to clinical cannabis research will continue to exist as long as the plant is a) classified as a schedule I controlled substance defined as possessing no medical use and b) the source material for clinical trials must be provided by the US government’s lone supplier, the University of Mississippi (which is overseen by the US National Institute on Drug Abuse).
Further, despite this announced change, the DEA and NIDA (along with the FDA) still must oversee all clinical marijuana research. One of these agencies (the DEA) is in place to enforce the federal criminal prohibition of marijuana. The other agency (NIDA) exists largely as an outgrowth of marijuana’s schedule I status. It remains highly unlikely that the very agencies in place to oversee and preserve cannabis prohibition would ever permit the type of rational review that would ultimately lead policymakers and the public to question the status quo.
Finally, it bears repeating that ample scientific research already exists to contradict cannabis’ federal, schedule I status as a substance without medical utility, lacking acceptable safety, and possessing a high potential of abuse. More clinical research is welcome, but unfortunately science has never driven marijuana policy. If it did, the United States would already have a very different policy in place.
Judge Kimberly J. Mueller of the Federal District Court in Sacramento, California issued her oral ruling during a 15-minute court hearing today. Judge Mueller heard closing arguments in the case in early February but had postponed her decision on several occasions. Her written opinion is not yet available but is expected to be posted publicly by week’s end.
“At some point in time, a court may decide this status to be unconstitutional,” Judge Mueller said from the bench. “But this is not the court and not the time.”
Defense counsel intends to appeal the ruling.
In October, defense counsel and experts presented evidence over a five-day period arguing that the scientific literature is not supportive of the plant’s present categorization. Lawyers for the federal government countered that it is rational for the government to maintain the plant’s prohibitive status as long as there remains any dispute among experts in regard to its safety and efficacy. Defense counsel — attorneys Zenia Gilg and Heather Burke of the NORML Legal Committee — further contended that the federal law prohibiting Justice Department officials from interfering with the facilitation of the regulated distribution of cannabis in over 20 US states can not be reconciled with the government’s continued insistence that the plant is deserving of its Schedule I status under federal law.
Paul Armentano, NORML’s deputy director who served as the principal investigator for defense counsel in this case said: “We applaud Judge Mueller for having the courage to hear this issue and provide it the careful consideration it deserves. While we are disappointed with this ruling, it changes little. We always felt this had to ultimately be decided by the Ninth Circuit and we have an unprecedented record for the court to consider.
“In the interim, it is our hope that lawmakers move expeditiously to change public policy. Presently, bipartisan legislation is before the House and Senate to recognize cannabis’ therapeutic utility and to reschedule it accordingly and we encourage members of Congress to move forward expeditiously to enact this measure.”
In a brief filed with the court by the federal government, it contended: “Congress’ decision to treat marijuana as a controlled substance was and remains well within the broad range of permissible legislative choices. Defendants appear to argue that Congress was wrong or incorrectly weighed the evidence. Although they failed to prove even that much, it would be insufficient. Rational basis review does not permit the Court’s to ‘second guess’ Congress’ conclusions, but only to enjoin decisions that are totally irrational or without an ‘imaginable’ basis.”
They added: “Congress is not required to be ‘right,’ nor does it matter if the basis on which Congress made its decision turns out to be ‘wrong.’ All that is required is that Congress could rationally have believed that its action — banning the production and distribution of marijuana — would advance its indisputably legitimate interests in promoting public health and welfare. Because qualified experts disagree, it is not for the Courts to decide the issue and the statute must be upheld.”
Said Armentano, “The continued Schedule I classification of cannabis, in 2015, in self-evidently ridiculous. But unfortunately, the law may be ridiculous and still pass constitutional muster.”
He added, “The judge in this case missed a golden opportunity to demand that federal law comport with available science, public opinion, and common sense.”
Legal briefs in the case, United States v. Schweder, et. al., No. 2:11-CR-0449-KJM, are available online here.
Congressional Legislation Introduced to Get the Federal Government Out of the Marijuana Enforcement BusinessFebruary 23, 2015
House Resolution 1013, the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act, removes cannabis from the United States Controlled Substances Act. It also removes enforcement power from the US Drug Enforcement Administration in matters concerning marijuana possession, production, and sales — thus permitting state governments to regulate these activities as they see fit.
Said the bill’s primary sponsor, Democrat Jared Polis of Colorado: “Over the past year, Colorado has demonstrated that regulating marijuana like alcohol takes money away from criminals and cartels, grows our economy, and keeps marijuana out of the hands of children. While President Obama and the Justice Department have allowed the will of voters in states like Colorado and 22 other jurisdictions to move forward, small business owners, medical marijuana patients, and others who follow state laws still live with the fear that a new administration – or this one—could reverse course and turn them into criminals. It is time for us to replace the failed prohibition with a regulatory system that works and let states and municipalities decide for themselves if they want, or don’t want, to have legal marijuana within their borders.”
Separate legislation, House Resolution 1014: the Marijuana Tax Revenue Act, introduced by Democrat Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, seeks to impose a federal excise tax on the retail sale of marijuana for non-medical purposes as well as apply an occupational tax for state-licensed marijuana businesses. Such commercial taxes would only be applicable if and when Congress has moved to defederalize marijuana prohibition.
“It’s time for the federal government to chart a new path forward for marijuana.” said Rep. Blumenauer. “Together these bills create a federal framework to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana, much like we treat alcohol and tobacco. The federal prohibition of marijuana has been a failure, wasting tax dollars and ruining countless lives. As more states move to legalize marijuana as Oregon, Colorado, Washington and Alaska have done, it’s imperative the federal government become a full partner in building a workable and safe framework.”
Similar versions of these measures were introduced in the previous Congress but failed to gain federal hearings.
To contact your US House member and urge him/her to support House Resolution 1013, the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act and/or other pending federal marijuana law reform legislation, please visit NORML’s Take Action page here.