People are sometimes judged by the company they keep. The same can be true of drugs.
The Controlled Substances Act has five “schedules,” which rank drugs from most harmful/least helpful (Schedule I) to most helpful/least harmful (Schedule V).
You might expect therefore that drugs listed on the same Schedule would be of a similar character in terms of potential harm to individuals or society..
That’s true, for example of Schedule V (least harmful), where cough suppressants (with only small amounts of codeine), anticonvulsants, and anti-diarrheals (if mixed with atropine, which makes them unpleasant to snort or inject) keep company with each other.
But then there’s Schedule I, which lumps heroin, methaqualone (Quaalude), the date-rape drug GHB (gamma-Hydroxybutyric acid), and psychedelics together with marijuana.
The consensus of scientific evidence has long since argued that marijuana should not be placed in the same category as narcotics that are known to be dangerously addictive and medically harmful. Yet the inclusion of cannabis in Schedule 1 amounts to guilt by association.
While debates about the social and physical harm caused by prolonged or frequent use of marijuana, including as a “gateway” to more nefarious narcotics, continue, the fact remains that for most Americans, smoking weed is as acceptable (or not) as drinking alcohol.
According to a 2017 Yahoo/Marist poll, almost 30 million Americans use it at least occasionally (some less than once a month). Researchers consider it a drug that has a low risk of addiction or other side effects; it has never by itself led to an overdose death; and many doctors and patients (including military veterans) believe it has medical and therapeutic uses.
So why is it on the same schedule as heroin, a deadly narcotic (albeit one once marketed by Bayer as a cough suppressant for children and a safe alternative to morphine) –and one of the drugs driving the current opioid epidemic?
The reason is—no pun intended—habit. A habit tinged by politics.
In the eyes of the U.S. government (also most nations and the United Nations, though mostly because of U.S. prodding) marijuana has no safe or legitimate medical use, and is considered highly addictive.
Originally, marijuana may have been put on Schedule I to harm its reputation or that of the people who used it—guilt by association—by tying it to drugs that caused addiction and overdoses (heroin) or that the public media portrayed as causing you to go insane and maybe kill yourself because you suddenly believe you can fly (psychedelics).
There was also a strong tinge of racial and cultural bias. Since smoking marijuana was considered an activity conducted largely by counter-cultural types (read: artists, jazz musicians, poets) or by African Americans, it was treated as an affront to white-majority middle-class morals and values.
Scare films like the 1936 Reefer Madness underlined the point. And over the ensuing decades, more sophisticated but just as spurious anti-marijuana campaigns kept up the pressure.
This Is Your Brain on Drugs
Unfortunately such strategies had exactly the opposite effect for which they were intended.
The government’s overstatement of the dangers not only increased general skepticism towards the government; it made pot more attractive to young people as a statement of political and cultural rebellion.
But reality—and politics—has made keeping pot in Schedule I an outdated, and potentially harmful, government policy in its own right.
Now. about 30 states permit medical use of marijuana, in defiance of federal law, and more than 60 percent of Americans approve of medical marijuana as well. About 10 states also permit (or are about to permit) recreational use. So have entire countries. Uruguay became the first nation in the world to legalize cannabis last summer. Canada, our northern neighbor, followed suit this year, and pot will be on sale legally around the country starting in October.
It must be added that legalization does not necessarily imply endorsement. The dangers of drinking alcohol to excess or in certain situations like driving are high on the public policy agenda, even though it is perfectly legal. Marijuana addiction is similarly a concern, but by any measure, there is a much greater need for heroin rehab centers than marijuana rehab centers.
But here’s where Schedule I’s continued inclusion of marijuana could become harmful public policy. Some people may start to think that since marijuana isn’t so bad, maybe the other drugs on Schedule I are just as benign, just as harmless, and maybe they should be legalized, too.
While most drug use has not increased in states with legal marijuana—so there’s no gateway drug effect—they have experienced “an uptick in the ease of procuring psychedelic drugs.” Maybe it’s innocence by association? For whatever reason, support for the legalization of marijuana and the study of psychedelic drugs are both on the rise.
As Justice Pitney wrote, when a witness lies about one thing “the jury may reasonably have concluded that their testimony should be rejected in toto—falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus”.
Applied to all Schedule I drugs, that is worrisome.
It’s doubtful that heroin could be so easily rehabilitated, given the overdose deaths now occurring (though many are likely due to lacing heroin with fentanyl—a Schedule II drug, thus judged to be less harmful than marijuana—or fentanyl masquerading as heroin).
Marijuana isn’t the only drug on the Schedule 1 list that deserves a sober second look.
Psychedelics—substances that cause hallucinations—are enjoying a lot of good press lately, with the publication of many articles extolling their therapeutic and spiritual virtues and Michael Pollan’s New York Times bestselling book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.
Some psychedelics and their beneficial uses:
- Ibogaine: Drug addiction (an actual “cure”)
- Psilocybin (found in “magic mushrooms”): Anxiety, depression, quit smoking
- MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine or Ecstasy, X, Molly): Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide): Creativity, productivity (through “micro-doses” that cause no hallucinations)
If psychedelics are so useful, why haven’t the pharmaceutical companies been lobbying the government to allow them to develop, patent, and sell their own versions? Possibly because they are found in nature, so can’t be easily patented. Or possibly because the government is against it, and they want to stay on the government’s good side.
Or—perhaps because in most instances psychedelics’ work is complete after one-to-three doses, so they wouldn’t be very profitable to sell on the commercial market. Since so few doses are required, the risk of addiction is minimized. Most psychedelics don’t seem to be addictive, anyway.
However, even most advocates for psychedelics don’t recommend handing them out like candy and self-medicating. That’s how Timothy Leary (“Turn on, tune in, and drop out”) sank the original legitimate psychedelics research movement. They should be taken under the guidance and monitoring of medical professionals or “trained guides.”.
Certainly, DMT (dimethyltryptamine), an ingredient in the psychedelic shamanic brew ayahuasca—users report visions that seem “more real than real”—should not be used casually or cavalierly, yet it is now reportedly being used in vape pens by teenagers.
No drug is 100 percent safe for all individuals at all times. Aspirin can kill you in a high enough dose, in combination with some other substance, or if you are allergic. Psychedelic drugs have similar limitations and caveats.
Psychedelics are not as harmful as the government claims, but they are not totally harmless. “Bad trips” are a possibility, but professionals can reduce the possibility.
But the bottom line here is that public policy—anti-narcotics policy—needs to be modernized so that it achieves societal aims of health and public safety that correspond with contemporary scientific and medical evidence.
Put psychedelics, for instance, on Schedule II—which includes cocaine, methadone, amphetamines, and the deadlier-than-heroin opioid fentanyl—so they can be properly controlled and regulated. A ban just sends people to the black market.
And move marijuana to Schedule III (that’s where you’ll find the synthetic THC pill Marinol), or Schedule IV (which includes phenobarbital, chloral hydrate, and another date-rape drug rohypnol).
Or even remove it altogether.
Stephen Bitsoli, a Michigan-based freelancer, writes about addiction, politics and related matters for several blogs. He welcomes readers’ comments.