‘The Haymaker’ is Leafly Deputy Editor Bruce Barcott’s column on cannabis politics and culture.
Pardon me while I catch my breath. It’s been a heck of a month.
Here’s what’s gone down in the cannabis world in the past three weeks:
- Canada federally legalized cannabis for all adults. Period.
- The FDA, a federal agency, officially approved a cannabis-based medicine, the epilepsy drug Epidiolex, theoretically invalidating the Schedule I status of cannabis.
- The World Health Organization declared cannabidiol (CBD) to be a proven effective treatment with no evidence of health-related problems or indications of abuse.
- In Congress, a bipartisan group introduced the STATES Act, which would end federal prohibition in all legal states.
- Chuck Schumer’s bill to end prohibition, announced ages ago, was finally introduced in the Senate.
- Oklahoma approved the legalization of medical marijuana in a landslide vote.
There’s more to come. Both Vermont and Massachusetts will enter into their fully legal status at the stroke of midnight on June 30.
That’s a lot to unpack, but it all adds up to one takeaway: This is the month that prohibition’s foundation collapsed. To borrow a phrase from filmmaker Dave Markey: This is the month legalization broke.
Let’s start with the most overlooked news in Tuesday night’s election: Oklahoma.
Oklahoma: Voters OK 788!
In 2016, the US Supreme Court rejected Oklahoma’s bid to smash Colorado’s legal and regulated cannabis system. Oklahoma state officials looked up at Colorado and saw 6 million hippies blowing clouds of pot and patchouli south on the prairie wind.
Oklahomans were asked to approve one of the most liberal medical marijuana initiatives ever written. And they said: Hell yeah!
Two years later it’s a different state. Oklahoma voters didn’t just legalize drops of CBD oil for kids and terminal cancer patients. They were asked to approve one of the most liberal, open-ended medical marijuana initiatives ever written. No qualifying conditions. Limits set at an ounce of concentrates. (For newcomers: That’s a lot.). And Oklahomans said, Hell yeah.
It wasn’t even close. Oklahoma’s State Question 788 passed 57% to 43%.
Oklahoma matters for a lot of reasons, but the biggest may be Texas. If OK is OKing medical by 14 points at the polls, that sends a message to the state’s big brother to the south. A poll released earlier today by the University of Texas/Texas Tribune found that 84% of Texans are ready to legalize medical marijuana tomorrow. A majority, 53%, would legalize for adult use.
Yesterday’s Oklahoma vote means those Texas polling numbers aren’t a mirage. They remain solid in the voting booth. And they should make Rep. Pete Sessions, the Texas Congressman (R-Dallas suburbs) who’s been holding up progress on medical marijuana, think twice about continuing to fight against his own constituents.
FDA: This Is Medicine
The FDA’s approval of Epidiolex is a jolt of another sort. The long-running fraud that is the Schedule I status of cannabis has withstood multiple legal challenges. In 1988, DEA Chief Administrative Judge Francis Young declared that:
“Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man. By any measure of rational analysis marijuana can be safely used within a supervised routine of medical care.”
That was the DEA’s own judge. Nothing changed.
The Schedule I fraud won’t fall tomorrow. But after Epidiolex it will be hard for the feds to defend it with a straight face.
One of the most difficult legal hurdles to overcome has been the fact that no federal agency has officially approved cannabis as medicine. Cite all the medical studies you want—and there are plenty. Federal judges tend to side with officials from federal agencies, and when the FDA weighed in, its officials would testify that they knew of “no sound scientific evidence [that] supported medical use of marijuana for treatment in the United States.”
After Epidiolex, the FDA can no longer say that.
Listen, I know the Schedule I fraud won’t fall tomorrow. Paul Armentano, one of the wise old heads at NORML, told me earlier this morning that he expects the Justice Department to try to split the schedule: Schedule I for CBD as an organic compound in cannabis; Schedule III for CBD when present in an FDA-approved medicine like Epidiolex.
“I say this because such a precedent for dual scheduling already exists for THC,” Armentano told me. Organic THC in the plant is a Schedule I drug, but “synthetic THC encapsulated in sesame seed oil in an FDA-approved product—dronabinol—is regulated as a Schedule III controlled substance. I would hardly be surprised if the DEA tries to codify a similar legal distinction with respect to CBD.”
If there’s a way for the feds to lie, cheat, and screw this up, they will surely find that way.
Judge Francis Young’s 1988 ruling should have shaken cannabis loose from the schedule. It did not. The difference now is that people are paying attention. A lot of people. From the looks of it, 57% of the state of Oklahoma was paying attention. Few people are aware of Francis Young, but voters nationwide know about Epidiolex, CBD, and the FDA.
Canada: The Evidence of Our Own Eyes
After decades of dreaming about how wild it would be for an entire nation to legalize cannabis, Canada just went head and did it.
Under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s leadership, the Liberal Party marched up to Ottawa’s Parliament Hill and introduced an imperfect but reasonable bill. Liberal leaders held public hearings, they listened respectfully to counterarguments, and they passed the legislation with such a lack of sturm und drang that the proceedings, were they scripted, would be drubbed by drama critics as Ambien on stage.
In the space of a few days—between the final Senate vote and the flourish of the “royal assent” ceremony—all the old vote-losing fears and deal-breaking phrases melted away. What about the children. What message are we sending. You’re just introducing another destructive drug into society. Canada can’t do this under its international treaties. Toddlers will eat cannabis leaves like sugar-coated lettuce. No, no, no, no, and stop it. Enough.
There’s a phrase sometimes used when talk about diversity and representation: To be it, you’ve got to see it. It’s difficult for young girls to know they can rise to become Supreme Court justices if they don’t see Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Sandra Day O’Connor inhabiting those roles. Same with business executives, computer developers, and board members.
To all those who say it’s never been done, it can’t be done, it won’t be done: Canada just did it. We all see it. Now let’s be it, America.