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A retired DEA agent's plea: Time to reschedule marijuana

A retired DEA agent's plea: Time to reschedule marijuana
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I spent my professional life on the front lines of America’s drug wars and rose to become one of the most prominent special agents of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. But, in recent weeks, I have been telling former colleagues that it is time for a change in culture at the agency that regulates drugs and enforces drug laws. It is time to reschedule marijuana from its status as the most dangerous kind of drug to one of a valuable medicine.

My change of heart comes as a result of events both public and personal.

In the 1960s, I was the first federal drug agent to arrest a student on a college campus for sale of marijuana. In the 1970s and ’80s, as head of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s New England office, I supervised the seizure of hundreds of tons of marijuana. In the ’80s and ’90s, leading the New York field office, I spearheaded the agency’s battle against crack. Since then, I have educated schools, physicians and others on substance abuse addiction and prevention.

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In terms of marijuana, the political landscape has changed drastically. The U.S. House of Representatives voted on Dec. 4, largely along party lines, to legalize marijuana under federal law. A few days earlier, the United Nations took the same stand. In the November elections, four states passed marijuana legalization measures, bringing the total number of states with legal marijuana use for adults to 15. Medical marijuana is now legal in 36 states.

But marijuana is still listed as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act of 1971. That places it in the same class as heroin, cocaine and methamphetamines because, the DEA maintains, it has “no currently accepted medical use.” Whatever the states say, marijuana users remain criminals under federal law.

So, it was with a sense of irony and guilt that I recently agreed to my doctor’s suggestion to try medical marijuana. I was suffering from back pain after three back surgeries; the pain was so great that I could hardly walk or sleep. Other medications, including opioids, have not worked. But after taking a marijuana extract, the pain disappeared. I got my normal life back.

To treat my back pain, I can legally use opioids — drugs that kill tens of thousands of people a year. Yet I feel guilty about breaking a federal law against using marijuana, a drug that has never, to my knowledge, caused a fatal overdose.

How long will the DEA continue this absurdity — one that flies in the face of public opinion, growing scientific research and human experience?

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If the DEA, under the leadership of President Biden, reclassifies marijuana as a Schedule II drug, it could be prescribed legally by physicians under federal law. It would end federal prohibitions that conflict with state laws and make it possible for the legitimate producers of marijuana to use federally chartered banks and other financial institutions.

Such a move would also address a tragic Catch-22 in American drug policy. The DEA refuses to declassify marijuana as medicine, pointing to a dearth of scientific evidence that it works. But a dearth of marijuana research exists in the United States because scientists are reluctant to work with a Schedule I drug.  It is time to break this pernicious cycle.

Finally, a reclassification to Schedule II status would provide a middle way between the full federal legalization that Democrats passed in the House and the Republican position of maintaining a dated, irrational status quo.

Let me be clear: I do not think marijuana should be an unregulated recreational drug. It can be harmful, particularly to teenagers and young people whose growing brains and nervous systems can be damaged by its use. I also disagree with the DEA’s most extreme detractors, who characterize drug agents as knuckleheads, thugs or worse. In my decades at the agency, the agents I knew were smart, ethical and dedicated to protecting the public from dangerous drugs, particularly from large-scale traffickers who reap billions at the expense of the nation’s most vulnerable.

But in the case of marijuana, my colleagues and I were misinformed. When I went undercover as a college student in 1965 to bust marijuana sellers on campus, I was an idealistic 22-year-old who had been taught with great authority that marijuana was not only harmful but the gateway drug to heroin use. Therefore, I thought, marijuana was indirectly responsible for thousands of deaths each year.

In the decades that followed, I worked arduously to find and arrest big-time traffickers who smuggled drugs into the country by the ton. Although my beliefs about the harmfulness of marijuana to users was slowly changing, I knew that large-scale international drug lords are shameless actors who will smuggle marijuana, heroin, cocaine or anything else that will make them millions of dollars. They are responsible for the toxic river of illegal drugs that leaves murder, environmental damage and widespread political instability in its wake.

If you think about it, those ills have absolutely no relationship to the reality of the nation’s marijuana use today. I do not think we should lock up Americans who are small-time users. But most important of all, marijuana can have extraordinary medical value for the treatment of pain and myriad other pathologies. Those who deny it are stuck in a mindset they should have abandoned long ago.

Robert Stutman was an agent of the Drug Enforcement Agency from the 1966 until the mid-1990s, and agent-in-charge of its field offices in Boston and New York City. He is CEO of the Stutman Group, a drug education and addiction-prevention consultancy.