Medical marijuana cause must overcome hurdles

Eight out of 10 Floridians support the legalization of medical marijuana, according to a 2015 poll conducted by Quinnipiac University. Even though a corresponding initiative failed to pass during the November elections (receiving 58 percent of votes instead of the required 60), the support for the idea itself has not gone away.

A bill that would significantly expand access to medical marijuana is making its way through the Senate, and even if it does not succeed, legalization will likely be on the ballot again in 2016, according to a March 31 story by Tallahassee’s WCTV.

Given this attention, Florida is very likely to see medical marijuana legalized within a year or two, joining the 23 states that have already done so.

But will this solve all problems for patients who need marijuana? Apparently not. The federal government is still in the way.

According to the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), marijuana is a Schedule I substance. This group includes the most dangerous drugs with “no currently accepted medical use,” like heroin, while cocaine is placed one division lower, in Schedule II. This classification might have seemed reasonable back in the ‘70s, but today, more than a million people are using marijuana for medical purposes, including patients with cancer, glaucoma and PTSD.

Multiple attempts to reschedule the drug have failed, since both parties have been unwilling to take the heat for supporting this controversial issue. So, technically, almost half the states are currently violating the federal law by allowing the medicinal use of marijuana. And even though the federal government has recently chosen not to enforce the law in these states, this controversy still has adverse effects.

In previous years, multiple people had been found guilty of growing weed at home and prosecuted under the federal law, even if it was legal in their state, according to a September 2014 CNN report. Many of them are still in jail, and any future shift in the dynamics between the states and the federal government may trigger more raids on marijuana growers in Washington, Colorado and Florida – should it choose to legalize the drug.

Even without criminal prosecution, medical marijuana users still face many obstacles caused by the federal prohibition. Banks refuse to open accounts for marijuana businesses, which means that credit card transactions are closed to them.

An even bigger problem is the restriction placed on research. Qualified plant samples are hard to obtain, and research institutions that use federal grants (which means nearly all of them) are reluctant to spend the money on marijuana studies since the federal government can easily shut down these programs.

Ironically, it is the lack of research that Congress uses as the main reason to keep marijuana in Schedule I.

The federal government appears to have so much power, that it can overrule any state laws regarding marijuana by enforcing an old and most likely outdated act. This doesn’t sound like a balanced model of federalism, where there is a clear border between state and federal issues.

So should we even worry about state legalization when the central government will keep creating hurdles for marijuana users and possibly jail people who grow or distribute it for medical use?

Perhaps if Florida and some other states choose to make marijuana legal, the federal government would have to oppose half the country, making it significantly harder to impose federal rulings on individual states and thus preserving their autonomy. Congress has already curtailed federal spending on marijuana prosecution, and with more states in favor of the legislation, the probability of change at the federal level will only increase.

It turns out that supporting medical marijuana would not only help thousands of patients and correct an outdated law, it would also protect U.S. federalism.

Anna Ivanova is a sophomore majoring in neuroscience. She is a member of the University of Miami Intercollegiate Debate Team, which has been debating the decriminalization of marijuana, among other topics, as designated by the national Cross Examination Debate Association for the 2014-15 competition year.