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The Strange History of Medical Marijuana

A brief history of medical marijuana and its status under federal law.

With medical marijuana on the verge of being available in DC, it's a good time for a review. It was used for pain relief in China almost 5000 years ago, reached Europe by the 17th century--Queen Victoria's doctor prescribed it for her--and became widely used in the US in the mid-19th century, usually in a tincture with alcohol.

 In 1937, however, Congress effectively prohibited it with the Marijuana Tax Act--over the objections of the America Medical Association. (The tax route was used because it was believed that Congress did not have the power to ban drugs--that's why alcohol prohibition was enacted by a constitutional amendment and repealed by another amendment.)

 The Tax Act was replaced by the 1970 Controlled Substances Act (CSA), which created the five-tier drug schedule that we have now. It put marijuana in Schedule 1, along with heroin and LSD, while cocaine, for example, is in Schedule 2 (that's right--the government officially says that cocaine is less dangerous than marijuana!). The key difference is that Schedule 2 drugs can be used medically, while those in Schedule 1 cannot.

 Congress was not sure, however, that marijuana really belonged in Schedule 1, so the same law created a National Commission on Marijuana. In 1972 it ruled 13-0 not only that marijuana be removed from Schedule 1 but that it also be decriminalized, even though nine Commissioners were appointed by President Nixon--the man who launched the "War on Drugs"--and the other four were sitting Senators or Congressmen.

 When the government failed to act, a suit was filed seeking marijuana's removal from Schedule 1. After 14 years of government delaying tactics, DEA judge Francis Young held extensive hearings and ruled in 1988 that it absolutely did not belong in Schedule 1, commenting that it "is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man....safer than many foods we commonly consume." DEA, however, rejected the findings of its own judge.

 A 1995 rescheduling petition to DEA was rejected after a six-year delay, on the grounds that the petitioner did not have "standing". In 2002, Americans for Safe Access (ASA), a patients support group, asked for rescheduling, citing the accumulating evidence of marijuana's medical efficacy. This time DEA took nine years to reject the request.

 ASA filed another suit, arguing that DEA's decision was unreasonable, and the DC Circuit Court of Appeals heard evidence in that case on October 16. Under the CSA, a Schedule 1 drug must meet three criteria--no accepted medical use, high potential for abuse, and inability to be used safely. DEA asserts that marijuana meets all three criteria, despite overwhelming evidence that it meets none of them. (A drug that clearly does meet all three criteria is tobacco, but it, and alcohol, are exempt from the CSA.)

 If common sense prevails, the court will rule in favor of suffering patients; I'll review the evidence next time, then look at DC's medical marijuana program.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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