As local governments in Nevada struggle with how to implement the laws on medical marijuana dispensaries, one fact looms in the background, casting a shadow over the entire enterprise.
The federal government still says marijuana is a highly addictive drug with no medical benefits.
Of course, that’s false. Scores of doctors have prescribed marijuana to patients for dozens of conditions, and hundreds of people have testified about how it helped them fight debilitating illnesses and body-wracking treatments for dreaded diseases such as cancer. And the National Institute on Drug Abuse has reported that about 9 percent of people who use marijuana become dependent on the drug, far less than, say, alcohol.
But that hasn’t made a difference to the federal government. Marijuana still sits on the list of Schedule I controlled substances, alongside heroin, LSD, the date-rape drug GHB and the club drug Ecstasy, otherwise known as MDMA. And it doesn’t look like there’s any appetite to change that designation.
If there were, many problems faced by Southern Nevada local governments would be fixed: Even moving marijuana to Schedule II, a list of drugs that are controlled but that have medical value, such as codeine, hydrocodone or fentanyl, would be an improvement. With a prescription, you can pick up many Schedule II drugs at your neighborhood pharmacy, without the need to create special dispensaries. (A note to readers: In a recent column, I confused some Schedule II drugs for Schedule I — apologies for the error.)
Recently, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid said he’d changed his views on medical marijuana, and he opined that America wastes law enforcement resources chasing marijuana users. Reid is in a position to do something about that, and changing the marijuana classification would be a huge first step.
I’m not talking about outright legalization here, the way Colorado and Washington state voters have done. It’s just a small change in a federal classification scheme, and if Nevada’s federal delegation really wants to help out the local governments in Nevada, they should all come together with a bill to make the change. (Full disclosure: My wife works in the public communications office of the city of Las Vegas, which this week voted to seek more information about medical marijuana dispensaries.)
But I’m guessing this is not going to be a priority for Nevada’s congressional representatives. Why? Because nobody wants to open themselves up to attack as sympathetic to drug use, even one where underground use is as widespread as marijuana. (I guarantee most of you reading this know somebody who uses marijuana or has in the past, and most of those people do so with few ill effects, if any.)
That’s why we’re in this situation in the first place: Activists gave up on trying to change federal law, and began working at the state level, and started with the slightly more socially acceptable medical marijuana. In 20 states, pot is legal for medical use. In Nevada, voters approved it in 1998 and 2000, but the Legislature failed to fully implement the law until last year. The dispensary law that passed in Carson City is what local governments are struggling with today.
And looming over their heads is federal law. While President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have said they won’t make prosecution of medical marijuana a priority, it still happens. And what if a Republican president and a Republican attorney general take over in 2016 and decide to crack down on pot? The law in America should not change simply because the occupant of the Oval Office does.
By his own admission, Obama was an avid pot smoker earlier in his life. He of all people should know that marijuana doesn’t belong on Schedule I. Until it isn’t, most local officials will always be reluctant to act, opening a dispensary will always be more complicated and controversial than it should ever have been, and sick people will wait a little longer to legally get their medicine.
Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.