Taking Marijuana Reform Seriously

In two of the three presidential debates which have so far taken place, marijuana legal reform has been brought up in a serious way. Right there, that's a mark of respect for marijuana reform that has simply never previously existed at this level in our nation's political debate. The concept that the federal "War On Weed" needs to end is now about as mainstream as it gets, and after the people have led so admirably on the issue in the past decade, the politicians are finally deciding it is safe to follow this trend.

This is a monumental political shift. In previous years, the subject of marijuana only came up for presidential candidates on a very personal level. Bill Clinton, famously, "didn't inhale." Since Clinton, many presidential candidates have admitted smoking pot at some point in their lives, most of them brushing it off as a "youthful indiscretion" (Barack Obama was notable for refuting Clinton with: "I inhaled frequently -- that was the point!"). But now we have moved on from the question of personal use back in college to seriously discussing how the federal laws on marijuana make absolutely no sense at all, and never did. The moderators asking the questions still need to do a bit of basic research (to come up with much better and more pointed questions), but for the first time the issue is being treated not as a laughing matter but as an issue that millions of Americans not only care about, but want to see changed.

I've already written about this, right after the subject came up at the last Republican debate. Rand Paul, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie were all asked about federal marijuana policy, and I dissected their answers in detail last month. Since the subject came up last night, Democrats Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton deserve the same recognition. The questions were asked very late in the debate, and were even "teased" by moderator Anderson Cooper, right before a commercial break. When they returned, the question was first put to Bernie Sanders. Moderator Juan Carlos Lopez put a local spin on the issue, since Nevada (where the debate was held) will be voting on whether or not to legalize adult recreational use of marijuana next year. The question also might have been formulated the way it was due to the exchange between Rand Paul and Jeb Bush at the Republican debate (Paul pointed out that Bush "campaigned against medical marijuana" in Florida, while Bush tried to split hairs over whether he supported medical marijuana or not). From last night's the debate transcript:

JUAN CARLOS LOPEZ: Senator Sanders, right here in Nevada, there will be a measure to legalize recreational marijuana on the 2016 ballot. You've said you smoked marijuana twice; it didn't quite work for you. If you were a Nevada resident, how would you vote?

BERNIE SANDERS: I suspect I would vote yes. And I would vote yes because I am seeing in this country too many lives being destroyed for non-violent offenses. We have a criminal justice system that lets CEOs on Wall Street walk away, and yet we are imprisoning or giving jail sentences to young people who are smoking marijuana. I think we have to think through this war on drugs, which has done an enormous amount of damage. We need to rethink our criminal justice system, we we've got a lot of work to do in that area.

This is somewhat lukewarm support ("I suspect I would vote yes"), but it's still a lot stronger support than any other Democratic presidential aspirant has yet given. Rand Paul and the Libertarian wing of the Republican Party have offered up stronger support, in contrast. Still, it does represent a milestone within the Democratic Party. The only other candidate to be asked the question was Hillary Clinton:

LOPEZ: Secretary Clinton, you told Christiane Amanpour you didn't smoke pot when you were young, and you're not going to start now. When asked about legalizing recreational marijuana, you told her let's wait and see how it plays out in Colorado and Washington. It's been more than a year since you've said that. Are you ready to take a position tonight?

HILLARY CLINTON: No. I think that we have the opportunity through the states that are pursuing recreational marijuana to find out a lot more than we know today. I do support the use of medical marijuana, and I think even there we need to do a lot more research so that we know exactly how we're going to help people for whom medical marijuana provides relief. So, I think we're just at the beginning, but I agree completely with the idea that we have got to stop imprisoning people who use marijuana. Therefore, we need more states, cities and the federal government to begin to address this so that we don't have this terrible result that Senator Sanders was talking about where we have a huge population in our prisons for nonviolent, low-level offenses that are primarily due to marijuana.

Clinton at first flatly states that she's not ready to take a position, but then offers up a little vague and non-specific support for "the federal government to begin to address this." Without mentioning him by name, Clinton is basically stating her support of Barack Obama's status quo on the issue. She would not (as Chris Christie would) start cracking down on the states which have legalized recreational use. She's in favor of more studies on medical marijuana. Her entire approach, except for that one "begin to address this" remark, is one of "let's just wait and see." To her credit, even this wishy-washy stance is also far beyond where Democratic presidential candidates have been on marijuana reform in the past.

Of the five presidential candidates who have so far been asked about how they would treat marijuana as president, all five expressed support (to one degree or another) for medical marijuana. That is a notable shift, but isn't all that surprising. Over half of the states now allow some form of medicinal marijuana in their state laws. So it's obviously a pretty mainstream issue by now.

Recreational marijuana is about to go mainstream as well. To date, the voters in four states (and Washington D.C.) have approved ending the War On Weed altogether. Next year, Nevada won't be the only state where the voters get to approve recreational use -- as many as ten states could join Oregon, Washington, Alaska and Colorado. If California votes their ballot measure in, the entire West Coast will have legalized weed.

And yet the federal government still clings to a legal classification of marijuana that does not make any sense. This classification is not about science, and never was. It has been purely political all along. Here is the formal language of the classification marijuana exists under:

(1) Schedule I.

    (A) The drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse.

    (B) The drug or other substance has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.

    (C) There is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.

Schedule II drugs are defined as:

(2) Schedule II.

    (A) The drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse.

    (B) The drug or other substance has a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States or a currently accepted medical use with severe restrictions.

    (C) Abuse of the drug or other substances may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence.

Marijuana is Schedule I. The Schedule II list -- drugs deemed less dangerous and more useful medically than marijuana -- includes: cocaine, opium, amphetamine, methamphetamine (crystal meth) and PCP. This is not a sane federal drug policy, folks.

Barack Obama -- after a somewhat slow start and with a few steps backwards thrown in -- has vastly improved the federal government's legal outlook towards states legalizing marijuana use. But his "hands off, mostly" attitude could be completely reversed by the next president (or any future president).

The time for changing the federal legal classification of marijuana has come -- indeed, it is long overdue. Over half the states have some form of medical marijuana, and yet by federal law marijuana "has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States." The federal government itself even provides marijuana to a few patients (who were grandfathered in after a burst of sanity three or four decades ago, when the feds allowed glaucoma patients to be prescribed marijuana). By any rational definition, marijuana obviously does have "currently accepted medical use in treatment" -- but not as far as federal law is concerned.

This needs to change, and it's a serious issue to bring up to people who want to lead our country. The question needs to be sharper, though. If I were a moderator at one of these debates, I'd ask it as: "President Obama has indicated that he wants Congress to pass a bill changing the federal legal definition of marijuana rather than taking action on his own. But seeing as how the executive branch has the power to reschedule controlled substances with absolutely no input from Congress, if you became president would you instruct your attorney general to reschedule marijuana down from Schedule I?"

I would have two followup questions, depending on the answer I got. If the answer was "no," my next question would be: "How can you justify keeping marijuana under Schedule I when the only difference between it and Schedule II is that the substance in question 'has [or does not have] a currently accepted medical use in treatment' -- and considering that over half of the United States has legalized medical marijuana at the state level?"

If the answer was "yes," however, I would press the issue to its logical conclusion: "While moving marijuana down to Schedule II or even Schedule III would be a momentous shift in federal drug policy, do you think that eventually federal regulation of marijuana should be handled by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms? It seems like the most obvious place to put it in the federal government's organization."

As I said, the moderators need to do a bit more research to come up with better questions. Still, I don't really mean to quibble, as I think we're experiencing a vast sea-change in the national political conversation on marijuana. We have not quite reached the tipping point where the end of the War On Weed is all but inevitable, but we're approaching it pretty quickly. After the 2016 election, as many as 15 states could have legalized recreational use. Public attitudes have radically shifted in the past two decades (1996 was when California became the first state to legalize medicinal marijuana). The people who grew up without any exposure to marijuana at all have been dying off, to put it bluntly. Baby boomers are now senior citizens. Demonizing marijuana just flat-out does not work any more. Of the three Republicans and two Democrats asked about marijuana policy, all five of them supported medical marijuana. Four of them (to one degree or another) supported the right of states to set their own policy on recreational use. The Republicans (Paul and Bush) couched this in "states' rights" or Tenth Amendment reasoning. Bernie Sanders is the only one who was asked directly if he'd vote for legalization, given the chance, and he said he would. Hillary Clinton adopted a continuation of the Obama policy of "leave the states alone, let's see how it works out." Only Chris Christie championed going backwards and revving up the War On Weed.

That is an astounding turnaround on federal marijuana policy. Supporting medical marijuana is now the default position. No politician now dares to rail against it and use it as a scapegoat -- when it wasn't all that long ago that politicians of both parties felt politically free to do so. Politicians of both parties have also figured out how fast the public's opinion has shifted. It's a telling electoral footnote, but in 2012 recreational legalization passed in Colorado with a higher margin of victory than Barack Obama got in the state. The issue cuts across party lines, meaning politicians of both parties must tread carefully lest they avoid alienating what could be a large part of their base.

In short, everybody -- the public, the media (and debate moderators) and the politicians themselves -- is now taking marijuana reform a whole lot more seriously than they ever have before. As I said, we're not yet at the final tipping point. But the national political conversation has now taken a giant forward step towards getting there.


Chris Weigant blogs at:

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

Become a fan of Chris on The Huffington Post