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The United States’ Gradual Breakout from Marijuana Prohibition

After decades of combined advocacy efforts by millions across the United States, from groups to grassroots movements to individual advocates, marijuana has been experiencing a major uphill in the past few years. The struggle for marijuana legalization has gone against tides of opposition from government agencies, companies and lobby groups from each of the pharmaceutical and alcohol industries, and even from private prison corporations and police unions. That opposition got pretty grim starting 1970 with the passing of the Controlled Substances Act. That act classified drugs into categories based on their perceived medical utility and potential for recreational abuse and addiction. Schedule 1 was where the drugs that were supposedly most prone to abuse and possessed no degree of medical usefulness went, and therefore the drugs on that schedule were put under the highest level of restriction. As a part of president Nixon’s war drugs and the counterculture that was emerging at the time and with which he associated marijuana, pot found its way on Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act, along with LSD and Heroin. Even when an investigative body appointed by Nixon himself, the Shafer Commission, recommended in its 1972 report the decriminalization of marijuana, Nixon rejected that report.

Marijuana remaining since then on Schedule 1, the procurement of pot even by physicians and scientists was made extremely difficult, which impeded many attempts to conduct proper research on the plant. That level of restriction on even the academic scrutiny of marijuana, made acquiring it for medicinal purposes constrained to channels outside of the legitimate medical and pharmaceutical spheres.

At the state level, however, that federal-level enmity towards the use of marijuana was met with a relentless push in favor of medical marijuana legalization by citizens who started assembling through grassroots groups. There was utter skepticism towards the light in which the federal government was trying to propagate marijuana. These citizens who were using marijuana themselves, either medically or recreationally, and were genuinely aware its effects, could not see it as the Demon Weed the official rhetoric was trying to make out of it.

These movements started having the tools to fight with, when reports and academic studies started coming out reinforcing their claims. The studies started providing evidence to the curative effects of marijuana, and how it carried in its buds the relief for a number of ills that conventional pharmaceutical methods were unable to remedy, or better yet were worsening the conditions of these diseases’ patients. Thus the efforts of activist groups like the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) were empowered and their jobs made easier in their promotion and attempt to coordinate grass-roots efforts in favor of medical marijuana legalization at both the state and local levels.

At that time, namely the 1970s, Oregon, Alaska, and Maine, started decriminalizing marijuana, a short-lived medical marijuana research program was approved in Mexico in 1978. Then almost two decades later, in 1996, California became the first state to officially legalize the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, giving rise to an irreversible trend that is still in progress, as today 29 states, in addition to D.C., allow legal access to medical marijuana.

Throughout that period, and up until this day, the opposition of certain spheres remains harsh. The major force against this trend has been the pharmaceutical industry, finds in the legalization of medical marijuana a grave threat to its business, starting from prescription painkillers, which studies have found pot to be a viable substitute for in terms of pain relief. At a time when painkillers have been estimated to cause the deaths of 16,000 individuals per year, a figure higher than that caused by heroin and cocaine combined, as opposed to zero deaths proven to be caused by any form of marijuana intake, the multibillion-dollar opioid painkiller business is genuinely endangered. That has prompted researchers to declare pot a safe substitute to opioid products such as OxyContin.

In September 2014, Vice News unearthed a critical finding regarding the pharmaceutical industry’s involvement in the hindrance of medical marijuana legalization. Vice found that a number of the most hostile anti-marijuana activists were actually on the payrolls of a number of drug companies, including Purdue Pharma (the company that makes OxyContin,) Reckitt Benckiser (the producers of another painkiller called Nurofen,) among many others. The writings of some of the activists included in the report have been tools of many entities opposed to the legalization of medical marijuana. An example of that would be Dr. Herbert Kleber of Columbia University, whose writings are cited by the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police, and were published by the American Psychiatric Association in its statement against the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Last year, a father and daughter who are both scientific researchers, formed a duo and decided to run a study on the effects of marijuana legalization. In their study that was released in July in the Health Affairs journal, Ashley and W. David Bradford examined 17 states that had had medical marijuana legalized by 2013. What they found was in these 17 states, painkillers were prescribed fell substantially in comparison with states that had no medical marijuana law. The average doctor prescribed 265 fewer doses of antidepressants, 486 fewer doses of seizure medication, 541 fewer anti-nausea doses, and 562 fewer doses of anti-anxiety medication each year in the states with legal access to medical marijuana. But the most striking and important part was that the average doctor prescribed 1,826 fewer doses of painkillers each year in these states. “This provides strong evidence that the observed shifts in prescribing patterns were in fact due to the passage of the medical marijuana laws,” they write.

Despite more than half of the U.S. states having legalized the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes and 42 states allowing the medical use of a substance derived from the cannabis plant, federal policies remain a hindrance to the ability of medical researchers to study the abundance of benefits cannabis carries in it. Major among these hindrances is what is said by proponents of the medicinal use of marijuana to be an “artificial limitation of a research supply.” That prompted last June New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand along with a bipartisan group of senators and representatives to urge the removal of barriers set by the DEA on medical marijuana research, citing what he claimed to be new information from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) which determines the existence of medical uses for medical marijuana. The group was demanding the federal-level removal of marijuana from Schedule 1 which lists the substances that have no viable medical use, which has been proved throughout decades since marijuana was listed on the schedule, to not apply to marijuana.

After four states passed ballot initiatives in favor of the legalization of non-medical marijuana use during the last election cycle, today one out of every five Americans lives in a state where they can use marijuana without even a doctor’s permission. After decades of struggle for the use of this extremely curative substance and the emergence of an abundance of evidence to reinforce its medicinal vitality, 28 states today allow the use of marijuana for medical uses, including 8 who allow its use for recreational purposes as well, in addition to D.C. who allows both, although some of these states have not implemented their pro-marijuana legislations yet.

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