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3 insane things the US government believes about the war on drugs

Medical marijuana bags in California.
Medical marijuana bags in California.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images News

The fight against the war on drugs is in the news once again.

Following the New York Times Editorial Board's endorsement of marijuana legalization, there's been a surge in interest and conversation about US drug policy reform. In response to Times, the White House even put out its own blog post defending the prohibition of marijuana.

At this point, it looks like the Times' stance is much closer to where the country is moving. Most of the American public now supports legalization, and more states have already reformed or are considering changing their approach to marijuana.

The Times' shift also reflects a more realistic approach to the war on drugs. For more than four decades, federal and state officials have pursued a policy that in several ways ignores the scientific and empirical evidence surrounding drugs and prohibition.

1) The DEA says marijuana is more dangerous than cocaine and meth

Under the federal government's scheduling system, marijuana and heroin are considered schedule 1 substances that have no medical value and some  potential for abuse. Cocaine and meth are schedule 2 drugs that have some medical value and high potential for abuse.

The Drug Enforcement Administration interprets the schedule to suggest marijuana is equally dangerous to heroin and more dangerous than either cocaine and meth.

Drug policy experts in general disagree with this interpretation. Although most people acknowledge some drawbacks to marijuana use, there's wide consensus that pot is not anywhere close to cocaine, meth, and heroin in terms of risk.

Looking at factors like drug-induced health effects, changes in behavior, and impacts on violence and crime, British researchers in 2010 scored the risk of various drugs to users and UK society as a whole. They found that two legal drugs — alcohol and tobacco — are actually more dangerous than marijuana.


Marijuana, listed as cannabis in the chart above, is considered much less dangerous than two legal drugs. (Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs)

The lack of scientific evidence for the scheduling system doesn't stop with marijuana. As the chart above shows, hallucinogens — mushrooms, LSD, ecstasy — are some of the safer drugs in terms of harm to individuals and society. Yet these drugs are also considered schedule 1 substances.

Vox's Ezra Klein runs through the absurdity of the classification of marijuana, particularly as it pertains to alcohol, in this short video:

2) The federal government says marijuana has no medical value

Even though 23 states have legalized medical marijuana, the federal government schedules marijuana as if it has no medical purpose.

There's plenty of dispute about just how effective marijuana is as a medicine, but there's very little doubt that it could help people with some medical conditions. Some candidates for treatment: pain, nausea and loss of appetite, Parkinson's disease, inflammatory bowel disease, PTSD, and epilepsy and seizures.

Even government-hired researchers have told the government that marijuana has medical value. In the 1990s, the federal government tasked the prestigious Institute of Medicine to study pot's medical use. The institute's in-depth report, released in 1999, concluded marijuana is "moderately well suited for particular conditions, such as chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting and AIDS wasting." The report also found that the drug is not particularly addictive and not a gateway drug. The only downside uncovered by researchers was that marijuana is usually smoked — researchers feared that could cause health problems in the long-term, but that issue can now be overcome through vaporization pens and edibles.

The federal government is now considering whether it should reschedule marijuana. But the review could take months or even years, and there's a possibility that the federal government will decide not to change its classification.

The schedule 1 classification creates a catch-22. To get marijuana rescheduled, supporters need rigorous research to prove marijuana does have some medical value. But since marijuana is a schedule 1 substance, the federal government makes it difficult to study and requires researchers to jump through numerous hoops just to see if they can obtain legal marijuana supplies. Marijuana's classification, in other words, makes it difficult to lose its classification.

This problem doesn't end with marijuana. Even though there's some research that shows hallucinogens could be applied in very controlled environments to help people cope with severe anxiety and depression, the federal government also considers hallucinogens to have no medical value.

3) The federal government believes criminalization works

More than four decades after the 1970 Controlled Substances Act passed and the modern incarnation of the war on drugs officially began, there's no solid evidence the policy works. But the federal government continues defending the criminalization of drugs. By statute, the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy is required to publicly oppose legalization efforts.

At its most basic level, the point of the war on drugs is to drive down drug use. But surveys show drug use hasn't dropped for decades.


Even when drug use does fluctuate, some experts argue that this has more to do with cultural shifts, fads, and changing demographics than US drug policy.

The lack of evidence of success is one reason many drug policy experts now favor the decriminalization of all drugs, including heroin and cocaine. Decriminalization leaves room for these drugs to remain illegal to sell, but it could at least help put an end to anti-drug enforcement and racially skewed incarceration rates.

Mark Kleiman, one of the leading drug policy experts in the country and once a skeptic of decriminalization, previously explained his personal transformation on the issue: "What I've learned since then is nobody's got any empirical evidence that shows criminalization reduces consumption noticeably."

Kleiman's point seems to be a consistent issue in the war on drugs. For all the money spent on the anti-drug effort, there's not much evidence to justify it.

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