Ending the Prohibition on Marijuana

A DEA memo reveals that the agency is considering removing marijuana from its list of Schedule 1 substances. 

Stories on marijuana remain one of the quickest ways to trend on social media. Yet when the DEA announced that it was rethinking the Schedule 1 sentence this plant was slapped with when Nixon subverted certain communities—leftist hippies and African-Americans—the Internet had certain cause for cautious optimism.


Nixonian paranoia is no dystopian folklore. As Dan Baum reports in Harper’s, the former president’s crusade against marijuana and other mind-altering substances was a forceful thrust against a nation’s questioning population. In an interview Baum conducted with former Nixon staffer John Ehrlichman, infamous for his role in co-producing Watergate, Ehrlichman admitted that Nixon felt the White House had two primary enemies: “the antiwar left and black people.” Associating marijuana with hippies and heroin with African-Americans would ensure public support; the move was designed to disrupt the momentum of these two communities. Ehrlichman concludes:

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.

Baum estimates that decriminalizing drugs in America would free 260,000 prisoners, and that for every dollar spent on drug treatment to help addicts, seven would be saved. He speculates that addiction, while prevalent, is not as widespread as many believe, an assumption backed up by statistics. The great disservice of this perpetual “war on drugs” is the social costs—broken families, employment stigmatization, the creation of a criminal caste. These lingering effects are, sadly, exactly what Nixon intended.

Outside of a near-hopeless minority ghettoization, the drug wars have stifled progress in medicine. According to the DEA’s memo, only nine researchers a year between 2000-2015 were officially sanctioned to use cannabis in clinical research. During a time when opioid addiction is so rampant that a pharmaceutical company runs laxative ads for painkiller junkies, the denial of marijuana’s therapeutic values—the very definition of Schedule 1—is a modern tragedy.

The uncomfortable post-Super Bowl laughter around Movantik reminded me of the time my college friends bought a $30 bag of oregano in Washington Square Park. Upon opening the ziplock baggie in our Rutgers dorm room the smell and the realization were simultaneous. Underlying both is a recognition that forces beyond our powers are at work trying, and succeeding, to take your money. Our well-being is irrelevant.

This is not what we want from healthcare providers any more than our government. Public opinion has shifted drastically for the legalization of marijuana. As Baum writes, we don’t hold a special place in hell for those who supply teens with alcohol, nor do we limit alcohol consumption, save behind the wheel. Prohibition-era stigmas are absent even though alcohol is recognized as the world’s most dangerous substance.

The minutia of who should and shouldn’t be smoking or ingesting cannabis or how much THC constitutes an acceptable dose should not be part of the discussion of decriminalization. Anecdotal accounts are as valuable as kegger tales in this regard. Some people will over-consume; in fact, both the alcohol and cannabis industries rely on such users: Baum points out that twenty percent of alcohol drinkers consume over half of all alcohol, while twenty-three percent of daily marijuana smokers toke sixty-seven percent of all reefer. Point is, the larger percentage of users is comprised of responsible citizens—always has been and will continue to be.

The overbearing stress I felt every time I needed a marijuana source was happily abolished when moving to Los Angeles four years ago. While I have legitimate credibility for my medical license as a cancer survivor, let’s be serious: I enjoy smoking marijuana. In a nation where the actual most dangerous drug in the world—sugar—is wreaking havoc on the minds and bodies of millions, causing healthcare costs to skyrocket and countless premature deaths, marijuana should be the least of our concerns.

The DEA has an opportunity to undo nearly five decades of the worst policy decision regarding any substance in recent memory. The imprisonment of minority populations, the staggering physical and emotional costs associated with lost research opportunities, and a forced turn toward addictive opioids for pain management are only a handful of the many costs of Nixon’s hateful, bigoted legislation. While an apology would be nice, at the very least the next memo should read that marijuana is no longer a punishable activity. Anything less would be criminal.

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Image: Mike Theiler / Getty Images

Derek Beres is a Los-Angeles based author, music producer, and yoga/fitness instructor at Equinox Fitness. Stay in touch @derekberes.

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