Federal policy on marijuana is neither arbitrary nor set in stone. Proper procedures exist for changing the way that marijuana is regulated in the United States, but a ballot initiative in the federal district is not one of them. If the city were allowed to proceed, it would create legal chaos.
The classification of marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance was made through a legal and scientific process established by Congress and administered by the Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Agency. This classification means that the drug has a high potential for abuse, has no accepted medical use and cannot be used safely even under medical supervision. […]
The FDA and DEA have a process for analyzing such studies and approving controlled substances. We do not let any other substance become approved by ballot initiative. Every drug must be subject to the same strict scrutiny.
This is significant because the actual language of the rider only prohibits funds from being spent on enacting laws to legalize “any schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 801 et seq.) or any tetrahydrocannabinols derivative for recreational purposes.” Notably the rider doesn’t explicitly prohibit D.C. from using funds next year to legalize “marijuana,” which it easily could have done.
Harris seems to claim in his op-ed that his main legal problem with marijuana legalization in D.C. is that it would conflict with the federal government’s classification of marijuana as a schedule I drug. This implies the use of the term “any schedule I substance” instead of “marijuana” wasn’t sloppy drafting, but purposeful.
The Controlled Substance Act explicitly gives the Obama administration the power to unilaterally move marijuana to a lower schedule. So if the Obama administration moves marijuana to schedule II, III, or IV this rider would no longer impede the D.C. Council from moving forward with legalizing, taxing and regulating marijuana.
Even if the basic democratic rights of the 650,000 people living in D.C. weren’t at stake, the Obama administration should still reschedule marijuana now based purely on logic and the current science.
The federal government effectively acknowledged marijuana’s medical value years ago when it moved synthetic THC, the main ingredient of marijuana, to schedule II and later to schedule III. In addition, the way the government treats other plants that contain scheduled drugs is to put the plants in the same schedule as these pure drugs. For example opium poppy is schedule II along with morphine, and coca leaves are also in schedule II, just as cocaine.
If Obama actually opposes Congress interfering with D.C. home rule and trying to overturn local elections, it appears he has the power to fix it this time.
Jon Walker is the author of After Legalization: Understanding the future of marijuana policy, on sale for just $0.99