The White House has stood down. As long as certain enforcement priorities are met, for example preventing sales to youth, the federal government will not prevent Washington and Colorado from implementing regulation and taxation of marijuana sales to adults.
Many expected federal preemption, so how did this happen? I suspect Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s documentary, “Weed,” aired August 11th on CNN, might have been a Walter Cronkite moment for marijuana.
In February of 1968 as the country roiled with increasing doubt about the Vietnam War’s justification, Cronkite reinforced what many were beginning to believe:
“But, it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”
A veteran CBS television news anchorman, Cronkite was often described as the most trusted person in the country. Lyndon Johnson is reported to have said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”
Gupta, Chief Medical Correspondent for CNN, is similarly held in high esteem, mentioned at one point as a possible U.S. Surgeon General. In his documentary he offered a strong case for marijuana’s medical effectiveness, apologizing for having misled viewers some years earlier by dismissing the possibility.
Marijuana remains in Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act on the basis that it has a high potential for abuse, has no accepted medicinal value, and lacks accepted safety for use even under medical supervision.
I wonder if Dr. Gupta’s documentary may have begun to change the thinking of federal officials, not only about the Washington and Colorado laws, but also about rescheduling marijuana under federal law.
Dr. Gupta interviewed parents who, when conventional medications were unable to prevent the hundreds of seizures caused by their child’s illness, were at the end of their rope. They spoke with experts, learned what was being studied outside the labs of the pharmaceutical industry, and chose to take a risk.
Dr. Gupta’s interviews with researchers in the U.S. and in Israel bring into serious question the “no accepted medical value” and “general lack of accepted safety” criteria for keeping marijuana in Schedule 1. He could have highlighted thousands of other Americans, including the Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice who, in May of 2012, published an op-ed in the New York Times saying marijuana, provided to him by friends at “great personal risk,” was helping him with the side effects of chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer.
So, what’s preventing us from rescheduling marijuana and giving the drug the acknowledgment it deserves, both in federal law and in research labs?
Certainly there are challenges in researching a plant comprised of many compounds. But, if that challenge were impossible to overcome, how is it that Israeli scientists are able to conduct rigorous studies of marijuana’s medical potential?
The second barrier, however, pertains to that first criterion for keeping marijuana in Schedule 1: “marijuana has a high potential for abuse.” The fact of the matter is that marijuana can be dangerous, and particularly for young people, early initiation and regular use during adolescence can contribute to a derailing of healthy development, school performance, and even irreversible damage to brain development.
Fearing that acknowledging marijuana as medicine will undermine efforts to protect young people from harm is the elephant in the living room. We must get as serious about that risk as about the risks of failing to invest in marijuana’s medical potential.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta, I suspect, may have helped end a war.