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Despite Some Progress on Legalization, the War on Cannabis Is Not Over

A true end to the war would also entail reparations to communities of color and the expungement of criminal records.

A protester holds a sign reading "Free the plant, free the people" on March 29, 2022, during a rally in Chicago, Illinois.

As the number of states legalizing cannabis and the public support for legalization continues to grow, it may seem safe to assume that the governing class has ended its war on weed. But Peter Grinspoon, M.D., author of Seeing Through the Smoke: A Cannabis Specialist Untangles the Truth about Marijuana, says that would be premature. The war on weed isn’t over, and the casualties are still alarmingly high in communities of color. Grinspoon — a primary care physician and cannabis specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital, as well as an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School who keeps a close watch on the politics of marijuana — argues that it’s time to end the war on cannabis, provide reparations to communities of color and expunge criminal records. Only then can we truly declare the war on weed over.

Peter Handel: With marijuana being increasingly legalized, many of us may think that the days of being arrested for simple possession are behind us. Is that true?

Peter Grinspoon: No. Nationally, arrests are going down every year, but we are not out of the woods yet. Medical cannabis is legal in 38 states, and recreational or “adult-use” cannabis is now legal in 23 states. There are dozens of states that still criminalize different types of cannabis use, and we still have arrests that number in the hundreds of thousands every year for simple cannabis possession. These arrests remain racially disproportionate, targeting people of color. We still have quite a bit of work to do, not only in terms of legalizing cannabis so that the arrests stop, but also in rebuilding the communities that have been devastated by the War on Cannabis, through pardoning people, expunging records and funneling profits from the nascent cannabis industry back into the communities that have been harmed, so that they can start to prosper.

What are the long-time economic and social impacts of criminalized cannabis use?

They are incalculable. To start, we’ve [seen] more than 20 million arrests for simple, nonviolent cannabis possession since the start of the “war on drugs.” When you have an arrest on your file, it can interfere with your educational prospects, your student loan applications, your housing and your employment. You can lose your kids. It can follow you for life. In addition, we have militarized our local law enforcement in order to fight this war on drugs, which is expensive and toxic to communities. We have denied millions of people access to a relatively safe, non-toxic, plant-based medication and have forced them to rely on more conventional, and often more dangerous, pharmaceuticals. The criminalization of cannabis has likely worsened the opioid crisis. And research into both harms and benefits of cannabis has been greatly delayed by this criminalization, as criminalization makes research much more difficult on all levels. Finally, by criminalizing any drug use, we make the use itself much more dangerous (e.g., people don’t have access to a safe supply of the drug, including cannabis) and we make it much harder for people who are struggling with addiction to get help, because they would have to admit to an illegal activity that could get them into trouble.

Why is marijuana still rated as a Schedule 1 drug, on the same par with heroin and quaaludes? What are the legal implications of this?

We’ve [seen] more than 20 million arrests for simple, nonviolent cannabis possession since the start of the “war on drugs.”

A Schedule 1 drug is a drug that is considered to have high abuse liability and no medical utility. Neither of these descriptors are remotely true for cannabis. Cannabis has always had accepted medical utility, dating back thousands of years. It was listed in the U.S. Pharmacopeia — as a recognized medication in the United States — from 1850 to 1942, when it was removed solely for political and financial purposes. Cannabis does not have “high” abuse liability; rather, it has low to moderate misuse potential — it has never belonged anywhere near Schedule 1. This original classification was done through a political lens, not a medical one.

We’ve [seen] more than 20 million arrests for simple, nonviolent cannabis possession since the start of the “war on drugs.”

Cannabis is impossible to fatally overdose on. Given that it is widely considered to be far safer than two other legal, commonly used, deadly and completely unscheduled drugs — alcohol and tobacco — it would make most sense to deschedule cannabis entirely. The Biden administration claims to be working on achieving a less restrictive scheduling of cannabis, though I doubt they will have the courage or the sense to fully deschedule it.

The legal implications of cannabis remaining in Schedule 1 are that it is very difficult to do research on such a restricted substance and it makes it impossible for doctors to ‘prescribe’ it. Doctors currently are able to ‘certify’ patients according to state laws (if it is legal for medical purposes in the state in which you practice). Yet, many doctors are afraid to provide it to patients given that, while it may be legal on the state level, it is still federally illegal, and they could hypothetically get into trouble.

How did marijuana originally become stigmatized as a “dangerous” drug with exaggerated levels of risk?

Harry Anslinger was the first head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930. He was dedicated to criminalizing cannabis, for political, bureaucratic and economic purposes, but he couldn’t do so without creating a “moral panic” that whipped up support and justification for criminalization: If cannabis were benign, there wouldn’t be much public support for criminalization. So, Anslinger, with the help of several prominent industrialists (who didn’t want the competition from a nascent hemp industry) and with the P.R. support of Hearst Industries, waged a highly racist and factually misleading campaign against cannabis. The medical facts were wholly abandoned in favor of spectacular, sensationalistic portrayals of cannabis users becoming drugged-out violent zombies who went on rampages and caused mayhem.

Exploitation of racism was the original social mechanism to turn the population against cannabis.

The doctors at the time opposed criminalization, but, under relentless political pressure (and with a profession-wide lack of moral compass), the doctors came on board with criminalization and started parroting the government’s widely exaggerated claims about cannabis. Thus, there was virtually no one, at the time, who was telling the truth about cannabis and providing factual information about true risks and benefits.

What role has racism played in the legal and cultural attack on marijuana?

Exploitation of racism was the original social mechanism to turn the population against cannabis. Fears were whipped up and stories were circulated about “dangerous Mexicans” from the Southern border smoking “the loco weed” and committing crimes, or of white women being seduced and attacked by Black men when under the influence of cannabis.

Courtesy: Peter Grinspoon

This attack has been committed unabated. One journalist quoted Nixon’s adviser John Ehrlichman admitting as much: “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to either against the war, or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.”

During the last 50 years of criminalization, there have been 20 million arrests for simple, nonviolent cannabis possession and, while Black folks and white folks use cannabis at the same rate, Black people get arrested about 3.5 times as often, for the same offenses. The extreme racial ugliness of the war on cannabis users is one of the things that catalyzed such powerful popular support for legalization.

Along with full legalization, you advocate for other measures to rectify the harm the war on weed has done, especially to communities of color and poor communities. What are these measures?

Set everyone who is stuck in prison for nonviolent cannabis charges free. Pardon them. Expunge their records, so they aren’t saddled with them for life. And — we need to set up the new cannabis industry, that is just being implemented all over the country, as we relegalize cannabis, so that profits from this new industry are preferentially funneled into those communities that were harmed by the War on Cannabis, so that they can recover and rebuild.

Who and what do you see as the primary barriers to complete legalization? Drug companies? Politicians? A hard-to-kill culture of denial regarding the drug’s overall safety? All of the above?

There are a lot of people making a lot of money on prohibition. Chief among these industries profiting is the $40 billion rehab industry and the sprawling law enforcement establishment. They have been steady opponents of legalization and have put resources into the fight, as they will lose a ton of business with legalization. The tobacco, Pharma and alcohol industries have also been against legalization (not wanting the competition…) and have donated to the “anti”-side of many state legalization ballots. These three industries have recently taken a more “If you can beat them, join them” attitude toward cannabis legalization. Most Republican politicians seem against legalization, which is sort of mystifying in that more than 50 percent of American Republicans support full legalization of cannabis, and much higher numbers of Republicans support legal access to medicinal cannabis. And, yes, there has been almost a century of undisputed, undiluted propaganda against cannabis, primarily by the U.S. government, which is slowly winding down, but this has deeply ingrained several fears of cannabis in our population that have little basis in reality, but which are slow to overcome.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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