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Why Hillary Clinton's Drug Reforms Aren't Enough

Hillary Clinton has promised to make some changes to America's outdated marijuana laws. But those revisions don't go far enough, according to cannabis activists - not nearly as far as the reforms put forward by her Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders.

To understand why Clinton still has a ways to go, we've put together an overview of the status quo, Clinton's proposed changes, and why her stance isn't progressive enough according to those fighting in the trenches for legalization.

The lay of the land

America's cannabis laws are currently out-of-touch with reality. Despite the fact that 23 states have legalized cannabis for medical use, cannabis remains a Schedule I drug along with heroin and LSD. John Hudak - the Brookings Institution's senior fellow in Governance Studies and deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management - told Civilized that the current scheduling for cannabis makes studying the drug and its medicinal properties, "costly in terms of cost, paperwork and bureaucratic procedure." He added that the scheduling also stigmatizes the plant:

"Schedule I means cannabis has no medicinal value. That creates cultural biases in universities and research institutions. Universities are pretty conservative places in terms of risk taking. Donors may not be interested in funding a university researching marijuana because it is a harmful drug with no medical value according to the federal drug scheduling."

The current federal scheduling also prohibits recreational cannabis use. Yet 16 states have decriminalized cannabis, four have legalized it, and the number of legal states could double in 2016.

Clinton's cannabis pitch

The former secretary of state has pledged to fix some of the legal problems surrounding marijuana in America if she became president. During an interview with WBZ NewsRadio's Joe Mathieu on Jan. 25, Clinton promised to respect each state's right to legalize, monitor developments in those states, and move cannabis from a Schedule I to a Schedule II drug so that it can be researched more thoroughly as medicine.

"I think that states are the laboratories of democracy, and four states have already taken action to legalize, and it will be important that other states and the federal government take account of how that's being done, what we learn from what they're doing. And I do think on the federal level we need to move marijuana from the Schedule I of drugs, move it to Schedule II, which will permit it to be the basis for medical research. And a lot of experts in the field are telling me we've got to learn a lot more. For example, you're taking marijuana for medical purposes, how does it interact with all the other drugs you're taking? What should be the right dosage? And different states have adopted different approaches to medical marijuana. And if we move toward legalization, what are the consequences? Let's learn so that we are smart about this."

In early February, she appeared at CNN's Democratic Town Hall, where she promised to work on ways to allow first-time, low-level drug offenders to get treatment instead of jail time.

Clinton's proposals are better than nothing, but commentators in the cannabis community are nonetheless underwhelmed. Here's why.

1. America would still lag behind the times

Patrick Nightingale, a lawyer and activist for Pittsburgh NORML, told Civilized that rescheduling cannabis is no longer a progressive position:

"Had we not seen such remarkable progress in states like Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska, then this would be a significant step forward in potentially cracking open federal prohibition of cannabis — certainly of medical cannabis...But this is 2016, we have legal states. We have millions upon millions of tax revenues from legal medical marijuana sales. So to hear a Democratic candidate say she is interested in rescheduling is too little, too late. Even many Republicans are more progressive than Clinton on this issue....It's as if the Clinton campaign is trying to say the least they possibly can say and still pretend that they support cannabis reform."

2. Rescheduling won't prevent users from being busted

Nightingale also pointed out that rescheduling wouldn't offer any relief for people busted for illegally possessing or trafficking cannabis:

"It would have no effect on criminal justice. Cocaine is Schedule II, and you can get some serious time for cocaine trafficking."

Nothing short of legalization, Nightingale argues, can guarantee that recreational as well as medicinal users won't face prosecution:

"The only thing that ultimately protects cannabis consumers in states that have legalized medical or recreational use is legalization on the federal level. There will still be gray areas no matter who takes over the White House in 2016 until there is federal reform. The US Attorney will have the power to turn back the clock."

3. Schedule II still makes it hard for patients to get their medicine

Matt Simon, New England Political Director for the Marijuana Policy Project, also criticized Clinton's position for offering little in terms of substantial reform:

"The reality, unfortunately, is that moving marijuana to Schedule II doesn't do anything to increase a patient's access to it. It would help in the research department. But there is already research showing that marijuana is less harmful than the opioids being used for chronic pain. Everyone agrees there should be more research, but there is a real contrast between Secretary Clinton's position and Senator Sanders' position, which would give all patients access."

4. Decriminalization isn't enough

Simon agreed that Clinton's gesture toward supporting decriminalization is hardly groundbreaking, though it would help people in illegal states:

"Almost every state in New England has decriminalized, so for the first offence or fifth offence, you're not going to jail. That would be a pretty weak reform if you're only talking about decriminalizing first offences."

5. "States' rights" is a Republican stance

In terms of Clinton's pledge not to interfere with a state's right to legalize, Nightingale suggests that Clinton is an elephant in donkey's clothing:

"The hands-off states approach works if you are a Republican, but not if you're a Democrat. With Republicans, you have a very strong sense of libertarianism....They can hide behind states' rights while being morally opposed to cannabis. To hear a Democrat using those talking points does not distinguish her from a Republican on this issue. I would feel more comfortable going with a libertarian GOP on this issue than a Dem talking out of the side of her mouth to get votes."

h/t WBZ NewsRadio, CNN

banner image: Jose Gil / Shutterstock


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