Will Marijuana Be Decriminalized at the Federal Level?

This article, in a slightly edited form, first appeared on Pain News Network on September 5, 2019.


“Times have changed. Marijuana should not be a crime,” U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris (D-CA) said in July 2019, when she and U.S. Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY-10), Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, introduced the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act. “We need to start regulating marijuana and expunge marijuana convictions from the records of millions of Americans so they can get on with their lives.” The current Democratic vice presidential candidate called the legalization of marijuana an important step “toward racial and economic justice.”

Chairman Nadler added, “Racially motivated enforcement of marijuana laws has disproportionately impacted communities of color. It’s past time to right this wrong nationwide and work to view marijuana use as an issue of personal choice and public health, not criminal behavior.”

The MORE Act would remove marijuana as a Schedule I drug (a controlled substance) and decriminalize it at the federal level. That wouldn’t instantly remove all restrictions; states could still prohibit the sale of cannabis. (Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical cannabis. Some states also allow the recreational use of marijuana.) But the MORE Act would give states more latitude to create laws to suit their needs, establish a trust fund to support programs for communities that have been most affected by the war on drugs, and destroy or seal records of marijuana criminal convictions.

On Wednesday, September 2, the House Judiciary Committee passed the MORE Act. Later this month, the U.S. House of Representatives will vote on whether or not to remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act and send it on to the Senate. Chances are, the bill will not pass the Senate, because Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opposes it (while, paradoxically, he supports hemp farming). Of course, hemp has very low levels of THC, but it does contain CBD.).

MORE Would Be a Game Changer

However, if the MORE Act passes, it would be a game changer. It could open the floodgates for the development of products that contain tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is one of the compounds in the resins the marijuana plant secretes, to treat pain, anxiety, and insomnia. Some research suggests THC alone, or THC and cannabidiol (CBD) combined, could be more effective than CBD by itself for treating many disorders. More research could discover life-changing new treatments.

Since THC has rewarding properties, such as inducing euphoria, any drug that includes THC would likely be a controlled substance. Nevertheless, decriminalizing marijuana would create enormous economic opportunities for growers and anyone in the business of finding solutions to many current medical problems for which marijuana or its derivatives may be useful.

We Can Help Right a Wrong

It doesn’t seem likely that marijuana will be decriminalized at the federal level this year, given the fact that Congress criminalized marijuana in 1937, and all attempts to reform the laws at the federal level have ultimately failed. Our current Senate is unlikely to change the status quo.

Upcoming election results will likely determine whether the MORE Act has a chance to become law in the near future. It behooves every voter to become familiar with the candidates’ positions regarding cannabis. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden supports legalization and decriminalization at the federal level, while President Trump is generally opposed to changing federal marijuana laws. The election will also determine which party controls the House and Senate.

Criminalizing marijuana has caused great harm. We, as voters, have the power to change that.


Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. He is author of the award-winning book, The Painful Truth,” and co-producer of the documentary,It Hurts Until You Die.” Opinions expressed here are those of the author alone and do not reflect the views or policy of PRA Health Sciences.

You can find him on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD.



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