The War on Drugs as a War on Information

Ariela Rutkin-Becker
J.D. Candidate 2016, UCI Law

As you read this right now, only seven hours north of us, parties are preparing for final arguments in U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller’s chambers to evaluate the current scientific research on marijuana use and to “determine whether the Schedule 1 designation is unconstitutional.”

The fact that Judge Mueller declared the federal government’s 40 year-old policy on marijuana unconstitutional in U.S. v. Schweder is both courageous and a sign of the times. About half of Americans support regulated adult recreational use of marijuana, and 80% support medicinal use.

The generation likely reading this – the millennial generation – supports marijuana legalization at rate of 63%. To many of us millennials, policies surrounding marijuana specifically are antiquated and lead to more harm than good, to put it generously. We can be quick to pass off these laws as anomalies, strange byproducts of a time before we were born that just have not gotten the opportunity to be fixed. We view these rules as haphazard, accidental, and unfortunate. We don’t stop and think about how drug policy got to be the incongruous, illogical way that it is.

This sordid legal and political history is filled with racism and pro-war sentiment. Drug policies did not evolve haphazardly. It is not an accident that marijuana is grouped in the Schedule I category with heroin, ecstasy, and LSD (drugs with a “higher potential for abuse” than Schedule I drugs, which include cocaine, methamphetamine, and oxycodone (Schedule I has a higher potential for abuse than Schedule I? Is it supposed to say Schedule II?). Rather, these policies have often been the result of very intentional political backlash to radical movements, including but not limited to the anti-war movement in the 1960’s. Each drug’s history is different and much too complex for a short article. I’d like to focus, then, on some of the overlooked scientific effects of marijuana’s criminalization from a “right to information” posture: not just from a historical perspective, but from a current one embracing a (hopefully brighter) future.

This is not my area of expertise. I don’t know much about patents, I don’t know enough about pharmacology, and I understand just the basic science behind different drugs. What I do know about, however, is how politics can affect scientific research and, in turn, how scientific research affects all of our daily lives. I know that it behooves us to look into this area – to critically examine what information we’re missing. In today’s information age, we think we have everything at our fingertips, but when it comes to what we put into our bodies, the truth has been purposefully evaded and obscured.

There is, in some sense, warring science about the benefits of medicinal marijuana. For example, in the case mentioned above, the United States retained Harvard Medical School professor Bertha Madras to explain her opinion that marijuana has “no currently accepted medical use in the United States, and that sufficient assurances of safety for use of marijuana under medical supervision are lacking.”

Despite Prof. Madras’ assertion, however, numerous studies in the past few years have correlated not just pain reduction from marijuana, but also a reduction in the risk of some common types of cancer AND the spread of cancer. These studies took well over ten years to develop based on the byzantine restrictions in place for marijuana research. Oftentimes their preliminary findings were published in symposia and journals overseas based on America’s catch-22 regarding marijuana research. As the Huffington Post explains:

“Marijuana, however, remains classified as the most dangerous controlled substance, Schedule I, alongside heroin and LSD. The classification means the DEA has to approve any clinical trials on marijuana. But without numerous clinical trials, it is difficult for scientists to prove that marijuana is safe enough to be classified down to Schedule II.”

To make things even stranger, marijuana remains the only Schedule I drug prohibited by the DEA from being produced for scientific purposes in private laboratories. Despite these hurdles, there is mounting evidence that marijuana is effective for nausea resulting from chemotherapy, Crohn’s disease, diabetes, PTSD and Parkinson’s disease. These studies oftentimes note that no significant adverse effects of the drug were observed, and the positive effects are pretty outstanding. They typically conclude a caveat, however, that larger clinical studies are necessary to verify the small sample size’s validity – clinical studies that, as mentioned earlier, are nearly impossible to conduct due to federal regulations.

We are under-informed both when it comes to illegal drugs and when it comes to how to use legal, prescribed drugs. Yet, the latter group continues to profit both wildly and legally, despite not only injuries but also deaths from its use and misuse. Prescription drugs are overprescribed, and will lead to 22,114 American deaths this year according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Let that sink in a little bit. 22,114 American deaths this year.

22,114 American deaths fills up the Honda Center in Anaheim with a 4,000 person overflow.

Marijuana deaths on record? Zero.

Prescription drug overuse is a huge problem in America, as highlighted by the numbers above. While regulations are beginning to be put in place for overuse and over-prescription, the barriers for “legal drugs” to make it to our cabinets — (1) research; (2) clinic trials; (3) patents; (4) distribution; and (5) prescription — are next to nothing compared to the barriers constraining marijuana. Why might that be? For starters, according to the Center for Responsive Politics commissioned by the Union of Concerned Scientists, pharmaceutical, medical device, and biotechnology industries together spent more than $700 million in lobbying from 2009 to 2011.

$700 million from one industry? That’s more than the GDP of a small nation. In fact, it’s more than the GDP of Comoros, Dominica, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau.

We all have a right to information. Ultimately, studies are studies and it’s easy to forget the human element until you yourself are faced with it. If marijuana can truly help cancer patients – as I’ve heard first-hand from many of my friends whose parents have suffered – then we deserve information about its potential. Even if it truly can’t help, we deserve more than the current labyrinth of obstacles and restrictions that facilities need to maneuver around to approve clinical trials for FDA approval.

Whatever happens in Judge Mueller’s courtroom, the holding will likely be extremely narrow. The government can – and likely will – appeal. But the winds of change rarely come from our judicial system. Rather, these winds start blowing from our conversations with our colleagues, our friends, and our families. We all need to think individually about what a sensible drug policy would look like, even if we reach different outcomes in those thoughts. And I certainly believe we can all agree that what we have right now is anything but sensible.