The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recently announced that it will review its decades long classification of cannabis as one of the most dangerous drugs in America. Since 1971, the DEA has classified cannabis as a Schedule I drug — meaning they consider cannabis, along with Heroin, as a drug with “no medical value” and “high potential for abuse.”
The DEA argues that there is not enough scientific research that validates the efficacy of cannabis as medicine. Among numerous other fallacies, what is problematic about this argument is that cannabis Schedule I classification creates innumerable hurdles for scientists to conduct research. For example, scientists must secure approval from the DEA and the FDA to do research on humans, while the government maintains a monopoly on the cannabis that can be used in human studies. Many scientists argue that they are “hindered by a complicated federal approval process, limited availability of research-grade marijuana.”
Despite the Feds perplexing decision to maintain a paradigmatic Catch-22, peer-reviewed research has proven cannabis can provide significant therapeutic benefit to patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, chronic pain, epilepsy, digestive orders, MS, depression, among other ailments.
In the U.S, there have been (at least) 33 published controlled clinical trials — studies on humans, as opposed to studies confined to a laboratory — most of which have demonstrated “significant and measurable benefits in subjects receiving treatment.”
To date, researchers have published more than 15,000 peer-reviewed scientific articles on the chemistry and pharmacology of cannabinoids and cannabis.
States (including California and Colorado), and approximately two dozen countries (including Israel, the Netherlands, and Canada), have voluminous amounts of validated scientific data that demonstrate cannabis — smoked and in other delivery mechanisms — is safe and efficacious.
Before I began researching cannabis, I was a skeptic. I was convinced the pro-cannabis crowd grossly exaggerates the therapeutic potential of cannabis as a backdoor to legalization. While I still believe many activists use medical arguments to advance the legalization of recreational cannabis, peer-reviewed scientific research has convinced me that concerning its therapeutic value and safety, cannabis rivals — if not eclipses — penicillin.
Now, I do believe there are a concerning number of individuals who fall into the cannabis quackery cult, touting cannabis as a panacea to virtually any ailment or disease. After all, while cannabis may be a remarkable medicine, a panacea it is not. Most disturbingly, many of these individuals unethically misrepresent research on the anti-cancer potential of cannabis, even claiming that cannabis unquestionably cures cancer. (Read my interview with Dr. Donald Abrams.)
Nonetheless, cannabis contains over 300 cannabinoids, and we’ve likely only touched the surface of its potential. There is a vast amount of research that still needs to be done to discover all of its potential utility.
So, given what we know about cannabis, how in the heck did we get to where we are today?
David Downs of Scientific American recently penned an excellent article, “The Science behind the DEA’s Long War on Marijuana.” Down’s article inspired me to compile a brief history and timeline of the political history of cannabis in the U.S. The following overview starts with our earliest cannabis laws, progressing to the “Just say no!” 1980s; and, to where we are now, where nearly half the states in the country have legalized medical marijuana and widespread legalization of recreational adult-use appears inevitable. (I intend for this to be a living document, and I will continue adding content to it — including research, milestones, legislative developments, etc.)
1619: The U.S. passes its first cannabis law
For years, the federal government encourages farmers to produce hemp for sails, textiles, clothing and rope. In 1619, the Virginia Assembly passes a law that requires all farmers to grow hemp. Residents and merchants in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, use hemp as legal tender.
1830: Irish doctor introduces Cannabis to Western medical community
After learning about the therapeutic benefits of cannabis in India, Irish doctor, William O’Shaughnessy, introduces medicinal marijuana to the Western doctors for the treatment of muscle spasms and pain.
The mid-1800s: Cannabis production blossoms
Domestic production of cannabis flourishes throughout the 1800s and until after the Civil War. Ultimately, hemp falls out of favor as imports and other domestic materials replace it.
Hashish becomes a fad among certain segments of society in France and the U.S.
1894: Western and Indian doctors debate the medical benefits of cannabis
At the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission, doctors from India and Western countries discuss the medical benefits of cannabis. A consensus emerges that the “moderate use of hemp drugs is practically attended by no evil results at all and produces no injurious effects on the mind.”
They acknowledge cannabis can be abused, but conclude that the benefits outweigh concerns and advise against prohibition.
1906: Federal government mandates drug labeling
The Pure Food and Drug Act is passed mandating that any over-the-counter remedy containing must be labeled.
1910: The Mexicans are coming!
The Mexican Revolution “unleashes” thousands of Mexicans into the U.S. With them, they bring a culture of consuming cannabis recreationally. Bigotry towards Mexican immigrants results in the increasing demonization of cannabis.
1931: The Great Depression and crime spawns questionable “research”
Unemployment during The Great Depression was the highest it had ever been in the U.S. As a result of the Great Depression, massive unemployment ensues triggering resentment towards the “racially inferior” Mexican immigrants. Bigotry spurs dubious “research” linking the recreational use of cannabis with an increase in crime.
1936: Reefer Madness — “Evil Weed” is Public Enemy #1
The Devil’s Harvest: “Reefer Madness” is turning our teenagers into “hooligans and whores!” Hollywood releases anti-pot propaganda film Reefer Madness — a film the follows a group of high school students whose marijuana use leads them to promiscuity and other nefarious behavior.
1937: Congress passes “Marihuana Tax Act”
Director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry J. Anslinger, leads a racist campaign to create hysteria about the “dangers” of cannabis. Anslinger’s campaign, coupled with bureaucratic self-interest and New Deal reforms, propel congress to ignore recommendations by the American Medical Association and pass the “Marihuana Tax Act of 1937,” restricting cannabis possession to those who pay steep taxes for narrowly defined medical and industrial applications. The Act effectively bans cannabis and most American pharmaceutical firms stop producing cannabis-based drugs.
Dr. William Woodward, then legislative counsel for the American Medical Association testifies before Congress and opposes the racially-motivated hardline the government is taking towards cannabis while criticizing the use of the term “marihuana” in place of the medically preferred and accurate term, “cannabis”:
There is nothing in the medicinal use of Cannabis that has any relation to Cannabis addiction. – Dr. William Woodward, AMA
“There is nothing in the medicinal use of Cannabis that has any relation to Cannabis addiction. I use the word ‘Cannabis’ in preference to the word “marihuana,” because Cannabis is the correct term for describing the plant and its products.
“The term “marihuana” is a mongrel word that has crept into this country over the Mexican border and has no general meaning, except as it relates to the use of Cannabis preparations for smoking. It is not recognized in medicine, and I might say that it is hardly recognized even in the Treasury Department.”
What is particularly interesting is that Dr. Woodward continues to argue against the Tax Act, because he believes further research may very well demonstrate more therapeutic uses for cannabis:
“To say, however, as has been proposed here, that the use of the drug should be prevented by a prohibitive tax, loses sight of the fact that future investigation may show that there are substantial medical uses for Cannabis.”
Talk about foreshadowing?
1942: U.S. removes Cannabis from official U.S. Pharmacopeia
While the American Medical Association opposes prohibition, racism fuels Congress to expand prohibitory measures. According to historian Martin Lee, author of, Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana, “in segregated America newspapers were saying, ‘this stuff makes white women and black men have sex.’”
[I]n segregated America newspapers were saying, ‘this stuff makes white women and black men have sex.’ – Martin Lee
Lee claims: “Congress being what it was at the time, you could ram things through just by bullshitting. Who’s going to be stepping up to the plate to defend a drug that blacks, Latinos and jazz musicians use?”
1944: U.S. starts arresting and jailing first marijuana peddlers
Amid New Deal reforms, sellers of marijuana are regularly arrested and jailed. The La Guardia Committee Report from the New York Academy of Medicine is one of many medical bodies to challenge prohibition. They conclude cannabis does not cause physical addiction or “insanity,” nor is it a gateway drug or lead to increases in crime.
Science adversary and drug czar, Harry Anslinger, asserts medical community (apparently) doesn’t know what they’re talking about and that their research is “unscientific,” — that a “degenerate Hollywood” is behind it. Drug raids lead to arrests of dozens of Hollywood actors who are casual users of the “evil weed.” Anslinger takes over control of how Hollywood films may portray cannabis.
1950s: On the Road — The Beatniks
Cannabis culture becomes an essential part of the “Beat Generation.” The Beat Generation — a group of poets and artists led by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg, William S. Burroughs, and others — were famous for their literature exploring post-World War II America. Their work had a profound influence on America and was a precursor to the emergence of the hippy counter-culture movement in the 1960s.
1960s: Suburban white kids start ‘toking up’
Cannabis use becomes mainstream with middle and upper-class kids embracing “pot” and drug culture. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson commission studies which affirm earlier findings that cannabis is not a gateway drug nor does not cause violence.
1967: “Flower Power” fuels anti-prohibition efforts
1967 proved to be a defining year for the counter-culture movement. The year started with the Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco on January 14. It would be at this event that author and social observer, Timothy Leary, coined the phrase, “turn on, tune in, and drop out” — a phrase that many “hippies” adopted as a mantra.
With more than 30,000 “hippies,” the Human Be-In informed the world that a thriving “hippie” scene existed, while serving as a precursor to the Summer of Love. The Summer of Love became a social phenomenon when more than 100,000 members of the counter-culture movement descended on San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. The city emerged as a melting pot of sex, drugs, rock and roll, politics, creativity and culture.
The counterculture movement made its way to the public consciousness, and inspired many ‘normal citizens’ and particularly members of the mainstream media to question the status quo. Cannabis usage among the youth increases, and along with it, law enforcement and arrests.
1968: President Nixon initiates the endless “War on Drugs”
Richard Nixon wins the presidency after running on a “law and order” campaign, promising to restore order to a country experiencing widespread civil unrest and disobedience. “Tricky Dick” initiates the longest failing war in U.S. history: the “War on Drugs.”
Years later in 1994, key Nixon aide, John Ehrlichman, confesses to Journalist Dan Baum:
Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did. — John Ehrlichman
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
1969: Supreme Court outlaws Tax Act
The Supreme Court (SCOTUS) rules against the Tax Act’s mode of federal cannabis prohibition with the case Leary v. United States, concluding that the purchase of a marijuana tax stamp equated to self-incrimination.
1970: Cannabis classified as one of America’s “most dangerous drugs”
SCOTUS’ Leary v. United States verdict inspires Congress to repeal the Tax Act and replace it the draconian Controlled Substances Act of 1970 which creates dubious drug scheduling. Pending results of the Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse’s report, they place cannabis on Schedule I — drugs scheduled in this category are considered to have “no medical value” and a “high potential for abuse.” Both are spurious claims that have been disproven again and again, yet to this day, cannabis remains a Schedule I drug along with Heroin. Bizarrely, cocaine, opium, morphine, and amphetamine are classified in the less-restrictive, “Schedule II” category.
1971: Nixon uses ‘pot’ to wage war on The Left
Nixon doubles down on “The Drug War.” Despite the fact cannabis was to be placed temporarily on Schedule I until science could be further evaluated, President Nixon smelled opportunity. He saw cannabis prohibition as a way to destroy the leftist anti-war movement he deemed a thorn in his side.
I want a goddamn strong statement on marijuana. Can I get that out of this son-of-a-bitching, uh, domestic council? … I mean one on marijuana that just tears the ass out of them. – Nixon
Nixon wanted strong statements out of the “Domestic Council.” The Domestic Council was the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, later to be known The Shafer Commission). Recorded conversations between Nixon and H.R. “Bob” Haldeman were — to say the least — revealing (May 26, 1971, Oval Office):
Nixon: Now, this is one thing I want. I want a Goddamn strong statement on marijuana. Can I get that out of this sonofabitching, uh, Domestic Council?
Nixon: I mean one on marijuana that just tears the ass out of them. I see another thing in the news summary this morning about it.
You know it’s a funny thing, every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish. What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob, what is the matter with them? I suppose it’s because most of them are psychiatrists, you know, there’s so many, all the greatest psychiatrists are Jewish.
By God we are going to hit the marijuana thing, and I want to hit it right square in the puss, I want to find a way of putting more on that. More [unintelligible] work with somebody else with this.
Haldeman: Mm hmm, yep.
Nixon: I want to hit it, against legalizing and all that sort of thing.
1972: Nixon rejects Shafer Commission findings
The Shafer Commission determines that cannabis is as safe as alcohol, and recommends the decriminalization of marijuana for personal use and an end to Nixon’s anti-drug efforts — citing it as a waste of taxpayer money. Nixon pressures the commission to reject its findings.
National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse host a hearing In Denver on January 10, 1972. By then the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was moved from the Treasury Department to the U.S. Department of Justice. Nixon’s pal — the soon-to-be disgraced — Attorney General John Mitchell, permanently places “pot” on Schedule I. To this day, despite half of the states in America permitting medical use of marijuana, the DEA continues to refuse to remove cannabis from Schedule I.
1973: Oregon decriminalizes possession
Irrespective of Nixon’s hardline approach, Oregon decriminalizes simple possession of cannabis, and between 1973 and 1977, ten states follow Oregon’s lead, including Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Mississippi, New York, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Ohio; numerous other states reduce penalties.
1974: Busted! Attorney General John Mitchell goes to jail
Nixon ally, Attorney General John Mitchell, is found guilty of conspiracy, perjury and obstruction of justice and is sentenced to jail for 19 months.
1977: Carter calls for decriminalization
Heeding the advice of prominent organizations such as the American Medical Association and many voices in the media — including William F. Buckley’s conservative National Review — President Jimmy Carter calls for decriminalization. However, concerned parents aggressively lobby Congress to enact stricter penalties.
1981: “Just Say No!”
Ronald Reagan assumes the office of the presidency and leads an anti-drug media campaign, with First Lady Nancy Reagan unveiling her “Just Say No” slogan.
1986: Mandatory minimum sentencing become the law of the land
President Reagan signs the Anti-Drug Abuse Act into law which implements mandatory minimum sentencing for sales — and possession — of cannabis. Federal penalties stiffen.
1987: Reagan Supreme Court nominee withdraws from consideration over past marijuana use
1987 In Jon Walker’s book, “After Legalization: Understanding the Future of Marijuana Policy,” Walker points out that, “during the height of Reagan’s anti-drug campaign, the president nominated Douglas Howard Ginsburg for the Supreme Court. However, once it was revealed Ginsburg had used marijuana several years earlier, it created such a political firestorm, he withdrew his name from consideration.”
1988: DEA judge recommends reclassification of marijuana
Responding to several petitions to reclassify cannabis, the DEA’s own administrative law judge, Francis Young, agrees and recommends removing cannabis from Schedule I. Young states, “Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man. By any measure of rational analysis, marijuana can be safely used within a supervised routine of medical care.”
The DEA ignores Judge Young’s recommendations. Reclassification denied.
1992: Bill Clinton famously proclaims, ‘I didn’t inhale.’
Bill Clinton admits to experimenting with cannabis, but laughably tries to minimize this “youthful indiscretion,” by claiming, “I experimented with marijuana a time or two, but didn’t like it. I didn’t inhale and I didn’t try it again. ” His efforts to downplay his usage became ripe fodder for comedians and late-night talk shows.
1996: California legalizes medical marijuana
Californians pass Prop 215 and California becomes the first state in the nation to legalize medical marijuana. Over the following decade, numerous other states follow suit.
20 years later, the Federal Government and more than half the states in the country still outlaw medical marijuana depriving millions of Americans — suffering from ailments ranging from chronic pain to cancer — safe access to a naturally grown plant that science and medicine prove can alleviate their suffering.
1999: Institute of Medicine determines medical marijuana has medical uses
In response to California’s decision to legalize medical marijuana, the Institute of Medicine conducts further evaluation of the cannabis’ therapeutic utility. They determine contrary the DEA scheduling, marijuana does, in fact, have medical uses and a relatively low potential for abuse. Their findings lead to new rounds of petitioning.
2009: American Medical Association tells the DEA to reconsider cannabis
Increasingly, physicians are becoming frustrated by the DEA’s stubbornness on medical marijuana, so the American Medical Association recommends the DEA reconsider marijuana as a Schedule I drug.
2011: Dimwitted DEA continues to deny science
Yet again, a seemingly clueless DEA motivated by politics and self-preservation denies a petition to reschedule cannabis, citing “a lack of available research specifically on smoked marijuana in the U.S.” Uh, huh.
2012: Colorado and Washington state make history
By voter initiative, Colorado and the State of Washington legalize the recreational sale and use of cannabis, becoming the first two states in the nation to formally end prohibition.
All Hell (does not) break loose!
2014: Medical community, media and legislators at odds with the DEA
The medical community comes out in favor of medical marijuana
A Medscape survey of 1,500 doctors finds 56 percent support legal medical marijuana. Unsurprisingly, support among oncologists — cancer doctors — runs highest at 82 percent. One of the world’s leading oncologists and cancer researchers, UCSF’s Dr. Donald Abrams asks a seemingly obvious question: “If the majority of physicians in the medical community support cannabis as medicine, when will the federal government finally admit that cannabis has a place in medicine?”
Legislators blast DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart
On the floor of Congress, lawmakers lambast the DEA’s Michelle Leonhart for refusing to reply to questions on whether she believed heroin was more dangerous than cannabis. To note, approximately 19,000 Americans died from prescription opioids last year — yes, in one year — yet, not a single overdose death has ever been attributed to cannabis.
The United States House of Representatives blocks DEA from targeting medical cannabis
The House of Representatives deals a blow to the DEA by passing an appropriations amendment put forth by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.). The amendment would prohibit the agency from using funds to arrest medical cannabis patients or target medical marijuana operations in states that have legalized medical marijuana.
On the House floor, Rep. Rohrabacher stated that the amendment “should be a no-brainer” for “states’ rights conservatives” while passionately arguing against federal government interference in doctor-patient relationships: “Some people are suffering, and if a doctor feels that he needs to prescribe something to alleviate that suffering, it is immoral for this government to get in the way.”
The amendment is a historic turning point in the War on Drugs garnering bipartisan support: Co-sponsors of the amendment included five Republicans, Justin Amash (R-Mich.), Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), Don Young (R-Alaska), Steve Stockman (R-Texas), Paul Broun (R-Ga.); and, six Democrats, including Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.), Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), Jared Polis (D-Colo.), Dina Titus (D-Nev.), and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.).
New York Times voices support to legalize recreational adult-use marijuana
The New York Times editorial board pens a six-part series, “High Time: An Editorial Series on Marijuana Legalization,” laying out a compelling case to “repeal prohibition, again.”
2015: Public support for marijuana legalization reaches an all-time high
Gallup conducts a poll and reports a record 58% of Americans support marijuana legalization. By contrast, in 1969, only 12% of Americans supported legalization. Support among millennials — ages 18 to 34 — tops 71%. Remarkably, support among seniors — those age 65 and older — reaches 35%, compared to 4% of senior citizens in 1969.
President Obama enters the debate with a seemingly contradictory declaration: support for cannabis decriminalization and treating marijuana like tobacco, but expressing opposition to legalization:
“As a general matter, I think that we have to separate out legalization — you know, there’s a lot of concern about drug abuse of any sort by our children and the general population — versus the heavy criminalization of non-violent drug offenses. And I think that a lot of states are taking a look to see, do we have proportionality in terms of how we are penalizing the recreational user? We still want to discourage that. But we’ve been able to discourage tobacco, we’ve been able to discourage a lot of other bad things that people do, through a public health approach as opposed to an incarceration approach.”
2016: Republican and Democrat presidential candidates support medical marijuana
Not a single candidate in this year’s presidential election — except for perhaps Chris Christie — has expressed opposition to honoring state-level medical marijuana legalization. Even arguably the most conservative presidential candidate — Sen. Ted Cruz — has vowed to adhere to a “hands-off” approach to Colorado’s recreational program.
Yet, despite decades of scientific research, medical consensus, overwhelming public support, and widespread support among legislators, Russ Baer, staff coordinator in the Office of Congressional and Public Affairs at the DEA maintains, “As of today, marijuana has never been determined to be medicine. There’s no safe, effective medical use, and a high abuse potential, and it can’t be used in medical settings.”
Baer claims anyone can petition the DEA to reschedule any drug they so choose but makes the caveat they carefully consider advice from the FDA, Department of Health and Human Services, and the DEA’s administrative law judges. However, they only seem to heed that advice when those agencies or individuals oppose rescheduling. And, he admits, “the buck stops here. We have final scheduling authority.”
Baer maintains the DEA’s “bottomline,” contending “the foundation” of their argument, “comes down to science.” Baer obtusely asserts, “We’re bound by that scientific and medical evaluation.”
I’m sorry, Mr. Baer, but what have you been smoking?
How much science and medical evaluation do you need?
“Of course cannabis has medical uses,” says professor of Clinical Medicine at the University of California San Francisco and Chief of Oncology at San Francisco General Hospital. And, Dr. Abrams should know! He’s part of a small group of researchers who the federal government allows access to research cannabis for human trials.
I’ve interviewed Dr. Abrams and we communicate periodically via email. In a recent exchange, Abrams pointed out, “anthropological and archaeological evidence shows that cannabis has been used for thousands of years in medicine. In fact, it has only been prohibited for a fraction of the time that it has been legal. In the U.S. it was used until 1942.”
As an oncologist who has dealt with cancer patients for years, Dr. Abrams says that almost daily he recommends cannabis for “nausea, pain, loss of appetite, insomnia and depression, because [cannabis] it’s effective.” He asks, “Why would I not recommend cannabis when a patient can use cannabis in place of half a dozen prescription drugs that all have significant side effects?”
To illustrate how inane the DEA’s argument is — given the voluminous amount of “science” and “medical evaluation” that exists — their argument is akin to a father taking a paternity test that proves he is the father. Yet, he insists the results can’t be right, because “the results just aren’t scientific.” Science supports cannabis. The medical community supports it. What more do they need?
Remarkably, in what seems to increasingly be becoming bizarro world, we’ve got members of Congress who doubt the science of evolution, yet acknowledge the science and medical evaluation, that prove cannabis has significant therapeutic value.
The DEA’s persistent refusal to acknowledge cannabis as medicine is maddening. They are lying to our faces! But, worse, it’s immoral. We subject patients to an astonishing amount of pharmacological “remedies” that cause thousands of overdoses per year, yet officially, the DEA maintains cannabis has no therapeutic value and a high potential for abuse, thereby effectively criminalizing millions of Americans or depriving them of medication that can help alleviate suffering.
It’s time to end the years of DEA bureaucratic obstructionism and political hypocrisy, and once and for all, for them to do what’s right: deschedule cannabis — like alcohol and tobacco — off of Schedule I. The people have spoken, again!