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Reefer Madness and the Election

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

For the first time since 1988, both major parties' nominees -- Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump -- say that they have never smoked or experimented with marijuana (without inhaling).

President Obama has been open about having used marijuana and other drugs in his youth, yet his administration has taken insufficient steps to inject some sanity into the federal government's approach to marijuana policy. In 2008, the Obama campaign talked about keeping federal prosecutors from going after medical marijuana dispensaries in states that have legalized medical use such as California. To the contrary, in his first term especially, Obama's Department of Justice was merciless on medical marijuana providers, as well as users. If you hoped for big change, get over it. Wednesday, the Drug Enforcement Administration announced it would not change marijuana's classification from the Schedule I drug status it has held since 1970.

Drug Enforcement Administration acting head Chuck Rosenberg explained in a letter that the administration will expand research into marijuana's medicinal benefits, but marijuana will remain a Schedule I drug because it "has no currently accepted medical use in treatment" in the United States, is not safe for use under medical supervision and has a high abuse potential.

Rosenberg understands it makes little sense to many Americans that marijuana should share the same schedule as heroin. (And, I would add, there have been no known human lethal overdoses from marijuana. The harm from marijuana is less dramatic, but real; chronic usage among teens and young adults can reduce the chances that they will marry, have children or graduate from college.) "It is best not to think of drug scheduling as an escalating 'danger' scale," Rosenberg wrote, and better to focus on medical and scientific evidence.

Here's the problem: There is no evidence that the DEA recognizes. For decades, the government effectively prohibited large-scale studies of marijuana's medicinal properties. That hasn't stopped Americans from finding out for themselves. "Talk to some patients," countered Marijuana Majority founder Tom Angell. "My mom has MS. It has medical value, believe me."

Californians legalized medical marijuana in 1996. Since then, many of us have seen friends with cancer overcome nausea and diminished appetite because they had access to marijuana. Acquaintances credit marijuana with controlling their epileptic seizures. I've heard from many medical marijuana users who believe weed enabled them to use fewer opioids and other potentially lethal pain medications. It's amazing the DEA can argue that marijuana is not safe under medical supervision when there have been no marijuana lethal overdoses, but opioid overdoses are the leading cause of accidental deaths in America.

Three years ago, CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta reported on marijuana's efficacy in controlling neuropathic pain for some patients and helping children who suffered from constant seizures. If Washington politicians truly cared about helping people in need, then the Democrat in the White House and the Republicans in Congress would have enacted legislation like the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States Act right then and there.

In saying he has to follow the legal criteria for Schedule I, Rosenberg is ignoring the gulf between legal requirements and reality. He says there is no currently accepted medical use in treatment, yet the government has barely researched medical use. Nobody believes what the DEA says, said Angell.

I don't think prohibition works, and I expect to vote for the California ballot measure to legalize recreational adult use in November. Still, I readily acknowledge that people of goodwill can stand on either side of this issue.

When it comes to medical use, however, the federal government should get out of the way and let people decide what works for them and the people they love. And, really, how can drug warriors who want to make it harder to prescribe opioids also want to make pain-alleviating medical marijuana off-limits? There is only one reason to cling to the status quo -- willful institutional blindness. The worst part is, Obama knows better.

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