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Just say no

The Biden administration’s cannabis agenda gains momentum

Sen. Chuck Schumer meets with reporters in Washington to discuss Cannabis decriminalization on April 30. Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite

Just say no
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As a child of the 1980s and 1990s, I was admonished regularly to avoid the use of drugs. First Lady Nancy Reagan championed the “Just Say No” campaign, lending it national credibility. Drug use couldn’t be depicted positively in cartoons or comic books, and warning labels were put on albums that glorified drug use. Afterschool programs and “very special episodes” of popular sitcoms warned viewers of the dangers of drug abuse. And who from that era could forget the famous Partnership for a Drug-Free America commercial that compared “your brain on drugs” to an egg frying on a hot skillet?

During these years crack cocaine menaced America’s inner cities, teenagers were warned that someone might slip ecstasy into their drinks at parties, and growing abuse of prescription drugs was paving the way for the opioid epidemic of the 21st century. But by far the most common drug was marijuana. Experts cautioned that marijuana was more harmful than cigarettes, the latter of which were beginning to be increasingly regulated. Furthermore, marijuana could be a “gateway drug” to more potent substances such as cocaine and heroin.

To be sure, many people smoked pot. But nobody with any credibility claimed marijuana was a good thing. In fact, while running for president in 1992, then-candidate Bill Clinton went to great lengths to assure Americans he “didn’t inhale” when he “experimented with marijuana” while a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University in 1968. I’m not sure most people believed Clinton, but the point is he had to offer his caveat because everybody knew that marijuana was bad for you.

Over the past two decades, marijuana has undergone a significant rehabilitation in the court of public opinion, especially when it comes to the alleged medical benefits of the drug. In the mid-to-late 1990s, a handful of states on the West Coast and New England approved ballot measures that legalized medical marijuana. They began a trend that continues to this day. Currently, 38 states have legalized marijuana for medical purposes. At present, 17 states and the District of Columbia have medical cannabis dispensaries where marijuana can be purchased legally with a prescription.

President Biden is sympathetic to arguments in favor of medical marijuana. In 2022, he instructed the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to review marijuana’s classification. Since the early 1970s, cannabis has been classified as a Schedule I drug, putting it in the same category as heroin, methamphetamines, and LSD. Schedule I drugs have no acknowledged medical use and present a high potential for abuse.

It’s worth remembering that what is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right.

On May 21, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, upon the recommendation of the HHS, proposed the reclassification of marijuana as a Schedule III drug. The period for public comments about the proposed move lasts until July 22, with a final decision coming shortly thereafter.

As a Schedule III drug, marijuana would be in the same category as codeine and anabolic steroids. While cannabis will remain a controlled substance that requires a prescription to use medically, the reclassification will acknowledge officially the medical benefits of marijuana. This will in turn open the door for federally funded medical research of cannabis, allow pharmaceutical companies to sell and distribute medical marijuana, ease tax burdens on dispensaries, and increase government regulation of the growing medical marijuana industry.

I’m not qualified to speak to whether or not there are legitimate medical benefits to marijuana. It is worth noting there are organizations like Smart Approaches to Marijuana that are raising the concerns that arguments for medical marijuana are not grounded in science but are based more on political calculations or appeasing the growing cannabis lobby. What I am more confident speaking to is the threat to human flourishing posed by the increased normalization of marijuana use in American society.

In recent years, the decriminalization of recreational marijuana has gained momentum among both progressives and libertarians. While legalized pot was once associated with progressive bastions like Madison, Wis., and Ann Arbor, Mich., by the second term of the Obama administration a growing number of cities and states were approving ballot measures allowing for recreational marijuana. That trend has continued into the Trump and Biden years. Some polls indicate that a majority of Americans now favor the legalization of marijuana.

It’s worth remembering that what is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right. Marijuana is a dangerous drug that leads to many harmful effects on the human body. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, those negative effects include altered senses, impaired body movement, difficulty with thinking and problem-solving, and impaired memory. Higher doses can lead to hallucinations, delusions, and even psychosis. Other potential effects include increased heart rate (which can lead to heart attacks), hindered brain development (especially among young people), and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mental health conditions such as schizophrenia and suicidal ideation.

All things considered, marijuana isn’t good for you, even if in the future it is proven scientifically to be beneficial when prescribed for certain medical conditions. If the Biden administration continues to move forward with reclassifying marijuana, it should also offer an unqualified condemnation of the recreational use of marijuana. Public opinion may have shifted, but it is still wise to Just Say No to marijuana.

Nathan A. Finn

Nathan is a professor of faith and culture and directs the Institute for Transformational Leadership at North Greenville University in Tigerville, S.C. He is a research fellow for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and is senior editor for Integration: A Journal of Faith and Learning. He also serves as teaching pastor at the First Baptist Church of Taylors, S.C.

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