[Note: Updated below.]
President Obama is taking your questions now, and will answer them tomorrow. In a move to make Obama more accessible and answerable to the public, the White House web site is soliciting questions from the public for Obama to answer on their new "Open For Questions" page. So, given the opportunity, what question would you ask the president? Personally, I would choose: "Will drug policy be included in your new science-based approach to government, or will you let politics continue to trump science in this arena?" Because there have been two specific news items in the past few weeks, and while they are almost completely unrelated, they both come from the "science/politics" debate on drugs. The first is the "morning after" pill, and the second is medical marijuana.
The morning after pill ("Plan B") was in the news because a federal judge just told the Food and Drug Administration to start selling it over the counter without a prescription to women under the age of 18. In a scathing opinion from the bench, the judge made it clear he believed that the decision to limit the over-the-counter status of the drug to adult women was made for political reasons, not scientific ones. Which the FDA is just not supposed to do. The FDA, under Bush, didn't even want to change the status of Plan B in the first place, they would have been much happier to leave it as a prescription-only drug. But they were forced to act, so they did what they could to continue limiting access to the drug to only the women they deemed fit to buy it without seeing a doctor first. The judge found this improper, and sent it back to the FDA drawing boards, telling them to get it right the second time around.
One would fully expect the FDA, under Obama, to reverse this decision and give all women access to the drug without a prescription. Politically, Obama doesn't have a whole lot to lose by doing so, and (theoretically) the FDA is supposed to be independent of political influence anyway, so Obama can even take a hands-off approach to the issue, which only further limits any political liability from reversing this decision. But instead of doing so, Obama should get out in front of the issue and declare strongly:
"This is exactly what I was talking about when I said I wanted to 'restore scientific integrity to government' and ensure that scientific data are 'never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda.' I meant what I said, and we will listen to scientific opinion on this issue, and decide accordingly. The only questions worth asking about Plan B are 'Is it safe?' and 'Is it effective?' and those are the only things which will influence our decision."
The second issue is more politically charged, but that should not be a reason for Obama to shy away from it. The Attorney General made news recently by saying he is not going to go after medical marijuana providers in states that have made medical marijuana legal. While federal law does trump state law, the Obama administration has decided that the specter of Drug Enforcement Agency raids on sick people when we have a crisis on our Mexican border shows the wrong priorities.
There are actually quite a few questions up on the White House's Open For Questions site right now dealing with this issue, so it will be interesting to see if Obama answers any of them. Many ask outright: why not legalize marijuana, tax it, and regulate it? But putting aside the legalization question, the subject of medical marijuana falls into the same "science/politics" arena as Plan B. Here is one of the more popular questions from the site on the subject, from "Phill" in Georgetown, Massachusetts:
President Obama, Do you plan on letting Science end the failed "War" on Marijuana for personal and medical use thus taking the strain of our prisons and police forces so that we no longer have to arrest over 800,000 non violent drug offenders?
Medical marijuana has been approved for use in over one-fourth of American states. Civilization, as we know it, has not crumbled as a result. But what most people don't realize (even the ones advocating for policy change) is that there is a very easy way to make this change. It wouldn't require an act of Congress, it wouldn't require the Attorney General to decide these things on a case-by-case basis, and it is scientifically appropriate. Doctors wouldn't have to fear retribution for writing a prescription, states (who choose to) could set up a legal way of licensing and allowing the growth and distribution to patients, and the entire issue could become a lot less politically charged.
All President Obama needs to do is to declare that marijuana will move from being a Schedule I "dangerous controlled substance" to being listed as Schedule II.
This gets a bit arcane, but bear with me here. Federal drug laws differentiate between different drugs for different reasons. The list of Schedules runs from I to V (with I being the most dangerous, and V being the least). Substances change designations over time -- like what has happened to cold and allergy medicines (which contain the precursor for methamphetamine, and were more tightly controlled as a result). But the main difference between Schedule I and Schedule II is that Schedule I drugs have no medical use, while Schedule II drugs do.
Here is a partial list of Schedule II drugs (the DEA has the full list of all schedules for those interested): cocaine, opium, amphetamine (Dexedrine), Demerol, methamphetamine, Nembutal, PCP, and secobarbitol (Seconal). You read that right -- cocaine, crystal meth, opium, and PCP are considered "medically useful" in some situations, and marijuana is not.
The actual language from the Controlled Substances Act:
(1) Schedule I.
(A) The drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse.
(B) The drug or other substance has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.
(C) There is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.
(2) Schedule II.
(A) The drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse.
(B) The drug or other substance has a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States or a currently accepted medical use with severe restrictions.
(C) Abuse of the drug or other substances may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence.
The other three Schedules (III, IV, and V) all use the following for item (B): "The drug or other substance has a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States."
As for provision (C) of Schedule I, there are no safety issues surrounding medical marijuana that I am aware of. And as for "accepted medical use," it seems there is a de facto accepted medical use when one-fourth of the states have allowed such medical use.
Meaning, scientifically speaking, there is no justification for the continued designation of marijuana on Schedule I. The question is entirely political, to put it another way.
Which is what President Obama promised to stop doing.
So, while the Attorney General's announcement that the feds were going to ease up a bit on raiding medical marijuana providers was indeed a welcome development, it simply does not go far enough. The Attorney General has the power to change all of this, without even asking Congress' permission. The same Act states: "the Attorney General may by rule ... transfer between such schedules any drug or other substance...."
So my question for Obama would be, in full: "President Obama, since you have promised to start basing government policy on science and not on politics, will you push to allow all women over-the-counter access to Plan B as soon as possible? And seeing as how one-fourth of the states have made medical marijuana legal, how can you justify on scientific grounds the continued listing of marijuana as a Schedule I drug and not under Schedule II? Are you committed to bring your science-based philosophy into the realm of federal drug policy, or will you allow politics to dictate such decisions, as in the recent past?"
[Program Notes: I had a little problem getting specific links on the White House site to work reliably, so I have just left the link to their main question page. I apologize for not providing better links. Go to the site and search on "marijuana" to see some of the questions being asked. And, while digging through the DEA's web page, I found the following gem that I just couldn't squeeze into the main article:
''Not later than 90 days after the date of the enactment of this Act (Oct. 30, 2000), the Administrator (of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration), in consultation with the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, shall place anti-drug messages on Internet sites controlled by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.''
Insert your own joke about drug users visiting a "space" site here. Ahem.]
[Update: President Obama did take a question on drug policy today. To his credit, he did so by essentially overruling his moderator. But, unfortunately, it was a "why not help the economy by legalization?" question. While he did at least take a question on the subject, by taking this particular question (and laughing it off with a "no" answer), he successfully avoided answering a more targeted question like "Why not move marijuana to Schedule I?" So, a mixed review at best.]
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post
-- Chris Weigant