The call for cannabis reform on the national level has been coming from some very surprising sources recently, including the American Medical Association (AMA), the Brookings Institution and presidential candidates. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders announced recently that he is in favor of removing marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). In support of his stance, Sanders introduced a bill into the Senate that would amend the CSA as well as give states the authority to make their own decisions about cannabis and cannabinoids.
This statement by Sanders is a major turning point in political debate over medical marijuana on the national stage. As a serious Democratic contender for the White House, Sanders holds an influential position. His statements on this issue will affect policy decisions and the opinions of many others, both inside and outside of his party. The fact that Sanders issued this statement now also highlights the popularity and urgency of this issue during the busy campaign season. Many media sources have pointed out that his bill in the Senate echoes the language of a bill now being considered in the House of Representatives.
"It's a state and a federal issue," Sanders said. "The federal issue is that we should remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act. That's a federal decision. The state decision is that we live in a federal system of government where issues like tobacco and alcohol are significantly regulated by the states. And I think that is a province of the states."
If medical marijuana is rescheduled from a Schedule I to a Schedule II substance, or removed from the CSA entirely, it and its derivatives would be able to undergo much wider scientific testing. Current research concentrates on the negative effects of marijuana, but rescheduling would allow researchers to investigate more of its healing aspects. Current federal policy discourages research, especially risk aversion among institutional review boards. Similarly, many universities have declined medical marijuana research proposals due to their concern over reactions from donors, parents and college trustees.
Sanders is not alone among presidential candidates in favor of updating government policy on issues related to medical marijuana. In fact, Republican Rand Paul is a vocal critic of current policy and supports wider medical marijuana research, access to banking services by marijuana providers and the right for states to decide how they will proceed on the issue.
In an attack on one of his main rivals, Paul pointed out, "If you've got MS in Florida, Jeb Bush voted to put you in jail if you go to a local drugstore and get medical marijuana. Yet he was doing it for recreational purposes, and it's a different standard for him because he was from a very wealthy family going to a wealthy school, and he got off scot-free." During the Republican debate, Bush admitted to smoking marijuana, simply tweeting afterward, "Sorry Mom."
Florida Senator Marco Rubio also expressed his qualified support for changing federal policy on medical marijuana. He told the Tampa Bay Times, "If there are medicinal uses of marijuana that don't have the elements that are mind-altering or create the high but do alleviate whatever condition they are trying to alleviate, that is something I would be open to."
The push for more medical marijuana research by these candidates was also supported by major healthcare institutions. Over the summer, the AMA published a report stating that marijuana should be considered a form of medicine. Their review of scientific studies concluded that the "use of marijuana for chronic pain, neuropathic pain and spasticity due to multiple sclerosis is supported by high-quality evidence."
Meanwhile, the influential Washington think tank The Brookings Institution called on lawmakers to reschedule marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule II, facilitate medical research into its potential benefits and expand the Compassionate Investigative New Drug (IND) Program. Their report pointed out that Marinol, a synthetic cannabinoid, was rescheduled from Schedule I to Schedule II in 1985 and moved down again to Schedule III in 1999.
Rescheduling alone is only one step. The Brookings Institution pointed out that the federal government's policies regarding medical marijuana involve many other agencies that deal with pharmaceuticals, healthcare, public health, medical research, business taxation and federal enforcement. Today, there remains a hodgepodge of conflicting policies that need to be clearly defined and standardized across the board.
Their report concludes, "As the next president comes to office, he or she will inherit a marijuana policy regime that is inconsistent and often contradictory. It is incumbent on President Obama's successor to introduce some uniformity, discipline and sensibility to this policy area. Focusing on medical marijuana research would be a good place to begin."
The public is ready for this change, well ahead of politicians. Research from national Gallup polls has shown that the majority of U.S. citizens have been in favor of marijuana legalization for the past three years. This year, the favorable rating has reached 58 percent. For those in the 18 to 34 age group, that favorability rating has increased to 71 percent, which is the best indication of future U.S. policy.