The war on cannabis that began in the 1930s seems to be coming to an end. Research shows that this natural plant, rather than posing a deadly danger to health, has a wide range of therapeutic benefits. But skeptics question the sudden push for legalization, which is largely funded by wealthy investors linked to Big Ag and Big Pharma.
In April, Pennsylvania became the 24th state to legalize medical cannabis, a form of the plant popularly known as marijuana. That makes nearly half of US states. A major barrier to broader legalization has been the federal law under which all cannabis – even the very useful form known as industrial hemp – is classed as a Schedule I controlled substance that cannot legally be grown in the US. But that classification could change soon. In a letter sent to federal lawmakers in April, the US Drug Enforcement Administration said it plans to release a decision on rescheduling marijuana in the first half of 2016.
The presidential candidates are generally in favor of relaxing the law. In November 2015, Senator Bernie Sanders introduced a bill that would repeal all federal penalties for possessing and growing the plant, allowing states to establish their own marijuana laws.
Hillary Clinton would not go that far but would drop cannabis from a Schedule I drug (a deadly dangerous drug with no medical use and high potential for abuse) to Schedule II (a deadly dangerous drug with medical use and high potential for abuse). Republican candidate Donald Trump says we are losing badly in the war on drugs, and that to win that war all drugs need to be legalized.
But it is Green Party presidential candidate Dr. Jill Stein who has been called “weed’s biggest fan.” Speaking from the perspective of a physician and public health advocate,Stein notes that hundreds of thousands of patients suffering from chronic pain and cancers are benefiting from the availability of medical marijuana under state laws. State economies are benefiting as well. She cites Colorado, where retail marijuana stores first opened in January 2014. Since then, Colorado’s crime rates and traffic fatalities have dropped; and tax revenue, economic output from retail marijuana sales, and jobs have increased.
Among other arguments for changing federal law is that the marijuana business currently lacks access to banking facilities. Most banks, fearful of FDIC sanctions, won’t work with the $6.7 billion marijuana industry, leaving 70% of cannabis companies without bank accounts.
That means billions of dollars are sitting around in cash, encouraging tax evasion and inviting theft, to which an estimated 10% of profits are lost. But that problem too could be remedied soon. On June 16, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved an amendment to prevent the Treasury Department from punishing banks that open accounts for state-legal marijuana businesses.
Boosting trade in the new marijuana market is not a good reason for decriminalizing it, of course, if it actually poses a grave danger to health. But there have been no recorded deaths from cannabis overdose in the US. Not that the herb can’t have problematic effects, but the hazards pale compared to alcohol (30,000 deaths annually) and to patented pharmaceuticals, which are now the leading cause of death from drug overdose. Prescription drugs taken as directed are estimated to kill 100,000 Americans per year.
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