How Obama totally blew it on marijuana reform
Last April, Raymond Schwab and his wife Amelia planned to relocate their family to Colorado. A Gulf War veteran who has struggled with chronic pain and PTSD since his honorable discharge, Schwab wanted to move so he could legally obtain medical marijuana, the only effective remedy he'd found for his symptoms. As a Veterans Administration (VA) employee, Schwab was able to take his job with him to Denver, and all seemed good to go.
But the Schwab family was moving from Kansas, where marijuana — even for medical use — remains strictly illegal. So when an angry family member reported Schwab's pot use to the police, five of the couple's six children were taken by the state.
In the months since, Raymond and Amelia have seen their children just a handful of times. As their lives remain in limbo, a Kansas judge has ruled the Schwabs can put their family back together only after Raymond passes four consecutive months of drug tests. That might not seem like such a tall order, but Schwab worries that his mental health and ability to work could spiral downward if he is unable to use Colorado's legal medical weed.
"They're basically using my kids as a pawn to take away freedoms I fought for," Schwab says. "I don't think what we're doing is illegal, immoral, or wrong."
Unfortunately, his case is not unique. Medical marijuana is legally available to varying degrees in nearly half of all states, and studies suggest it is effective for treating PTSD, epilepsy, nausea during cancer treatment, acute pain, and more. Veterans like Schwab have been particularly vocal in demanding medical legalization, and VA hospitals in New Mexico and Maine have begun prescribing pot.
But at the federal level, marijuana is still classified as a Schedule I drug, an honor it shares only with heroin, LSD, ecstasy, Quaaludes, and peyote.
One of these things is not like the others.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) defines Schedule I drugs as substances "with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse." Legally, they're considered "the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence."
In practice, this uncomfortable classification means that even medical marijuana users like Schwab are subjected to disproportionately harsh penalties if they are caught with pot in states like Kansas. "I see dozens of cases a month that are impacted by this classification," says Michael Cindrich, a California attorney who focuses on medical marijuana cases. Were weed rescheduled to a less severe rating, it is conceivable that the Schwab children would never have been taken from their home.
The need to reschedule marijuana has been apparent for decades, since the classification system was first implemented by the Nixon administration. In the years that followed, activists tried multiple avenues in pursuit of rescheduling without success. Petitions were ignored; bills died in Congress; and courts took the DEA's side.
But perhaps the most promising route to rescheduling is arguably the place it all started: the executive branch. Though the process isn't simple, it has been done before and, through the office of the attorney general, could be done again.
Already, each of the 2016 Democratic presidential candidates have endorsed rescheduling, and on the Republican side, several candidates have taken federalist positions on pot, including explicit support for rescheduling from Ben Carson.
But why should we have to wait until 2017 or later for a new president to maybe decide to expend precious political capital on a rescheduling effort? This is an issue of real urgency, not only for families like the Schwabs, but also for medical research, which is significantly hampered by the Schedule I classification.
President Obama doesn't see it that way. In fact, just last month, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) asked Obama if he would consider rescheduling marijuana during his final year in office. Obama's answer was "disappointing," Cohen reported. "On marijuana, he gave the same answer as when I asked him seven years ago: 'If you get me a bill, and get it on my desk, I'll probably sign it.'"
This is not particularly surprising given Obama's past dismissal of drug war reform. Despite his willingness to apply his “pen and phone” to other issues in the face of congressional inaction — not to mention the fact that rescheduling would be a legally legitimate application for executive power — when it comes to marijuana policy, Obama is remarkably apathetic. He has stated repeatedly that reform initiatives should come from Congress; that he doesn't see that happening any time soon; and that young people shouldn't really care.
That's a curious position for the erstwhile head of the "Choom Gang" to take. But personal hypocrisy aside, Obama's failure to use his lame duck leeway on rescheduling is a remarkable failure for a president who should know better. It has been plain as day for years that marijuana has no business being a Schedule I drug. It's time for America's president to act on that common knowledge.