Editorial: Science, not politics, should guide drug laws

Attorney General Eric Holder has announced the federal government will effectively end the Bush administration’s policy of raiding medical marijuana distributors who are operating legally under state law. The decision is welcome and long-overdue news and in line with promises President Barack Obama made repeatedly along the campaign trail.

Of course, this simple statement will require more detailed changes in procedure as it is implemented, and it should be followed by more thoroughgoing reform of federal laws applicable to marijuana.

Holder refined his position by saying, as The New York Times paraphrased him, that “the Justice Department’s enforcement policy would now be restricted to traffickers who falsely masqueraded as medical dispensaries and ‘use the medical marijuana laws as a shield.’”

That could leave open a range of activities that appear to us more designed to undermine state law than to uphold federal law or protect innocent citizens.

For example, Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Thomas O’Brien in Los Angeles, under whose auspices dozens of raids have been conducted, noted that only four operators and their associates had actually been charged in the past seven years, and claimed that “in every single case we have prosecuted, the defendants violated state as well as federal law.”

The relative rarity of actual prosecutions suggests raids on dispensaries are designed more to intimidate people than to put criminals behind bars, and resembles domestic terrorism more than legitimate law enforcement.

Assuming Holder is sincere and that rogue elements in the Drug Enforcement Administration do not conduct unwarranted raids, however, this is an important step. It should not be the last step.

Under the federal Controlled Substances Act, marijuana is listed on Schedule I, the most restrictive regimen, making any possession, production, transportation or use of the substance illegal. However, the law itself says that for a drug or substance to remain on Schedule I, it must have a high potential for abuse, have no accepted medical use and be incapable of being used safely under medical supervision. Marijuana does not meet any of these criteria. Therefore, under existing law it is arguably illegal to keep it on Schedule I.

Over the years a number of citizen efforts to get marijuana “rescheduled” have been undertaken. On each occasion, including one when the DEA’s chief administrative law judge issued an official ruling saying it would be “unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious” to keep marijuana on Schedule I, the DEA administrator has made a political decision to keep marijuana on Schedule I.

The Obama administration has said that on medical matters it will be guided by science rather than political considerations. If that is so, it should immediately expedite one of the pending rescheduling applications and decide it based on science rather than hysteria.

Attorney General Holder has announced a constructive first step on medical marijuana. There is more to be done, however.