Sunday, December 4, 2022
Dec. 4, 2022

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In Our View: Federal cannabis laws stuck in the past

The Columbian

A recent poll from Gallup demonstrates two immutable truths about the United States: Social mores have been vastly altered in recent generations, and federal policy regarding marijuana remains hopelessly archaic.

Gallup found that marijuana use in the United States is now more common than cigarette use. In a poll conducted in July, 16 percent of Americans said they smoked marijuana, compared with 11 percent who said they smoked tobacco. That marks the first time cannabis use has outpaced cigarette use.

To be clear, we do not advocate for the use of either substance. Both have deleterious effects, with cannabis impairing judgment and tobacco having well-documented negative health impacts. But it is long past time for the federal government to recognize reality and ease restrictions on marijuana.

Washington took a sensible approach in 2012, becoming the first state to approve recreational marijuana. Voters supported a statewide initiative with 56 percent of the vote, allowing people 21 and older to use the substance and setting the stage for a burgeoning industry. Washington had allowed medical marijuana since 1998, following voter approval.

Now, 39 states have legalized medical marijuana, and 19 states have legalized recreational use.

The latest Gallup poll reflects a vast shift in public opinion regarding both cannabis and cigarettes. While the effects of marijuana were long demonized and overstated, tobacco was marketed as part of a sophisticated lifestyle. Now, the cancer risks and health concerns that accompany tobacco are common knowledge.

“Smoking cigarettes is clearly on the decline and is most likely to become even more of a rarity in the years ahead,” Gallup senior scientist Dr. Frank Newport said. “This reflects both public awareness of its negative effects and continuing government efforts at all levels to curtail its use.”

But when it comes to cannabis, the federal government is hopelessly stuck in the past. Marijuana remains a Schedule I drug – the most tightly regulated category – under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Other Schedule I drugs include heroin, LSD and methylenedioxymethamphetamine (commonly known as ecstasy). It is inaccurate to argue that cannabis is as dangerous to public health as those substances, but they are equal in the eyes of the federal government.

This status has practical implications. For years, research into marijuana has been limited because of the federal designation. More recently, in the wake of increasing legalization, there have been serious issues surrounding the industry and banking.

With banks operating under federal laws, institutions are reluctant to deal with marijuana businesses. That creates an all-cash industry that is unable to secure loans and is susceptible to robberies. In the first three months of this year, the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board reported more than 50 robberies at cannabis stores across the state.

This creates an untenable situation. While marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, officials have foregone enforcement, looking the other way while states engage in locally approved business practices. A future administration, however, could choose to enforce federal regulations.

Congress should take a realistic approach to cannabis, clarifying that its inclusion as a Schedule I drug is outdated and that states have a right to legalize and regulate the industry. With polls showing an increase in marijuana use, it is evident that such an approach would best reflect the desires of the American people.