Washington Goes to Pot

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Following disastrous comments last week at a House Committee hearing by Drug Czar Michael Boticelli, Tennessee Rep. Steve Cohen introduced a bill called the Unmuzzle the Drug Czar Act of 2014. The bill, H.R. 4046, will amend the Office of National Drug Control Policy Reauthorization Act of 1998 and allow the Drug Czar to study the medicinal uses of a drug listed as a "schedule 1" controlled substance drug.

The drug in question is marijuana, which has been legalized for medicinal use and recreational use in some states. Backers want the Drug Czar to no longer oppose attempts to legalize the use of such a substance.

Last Tuesday, Boticelli, the Office of National Drug Control Policy's (ONDCP) Deputy Director, came under fire for refusing to acknowledge that marijuana was less harmful than heroin or methamphetamine. Boticelli refused to answer questions as to why marijuana was considered more dangerous than cocaine, meth or tobacco, all of which are lower on the ladder of controlled substances.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon called Boticelli's refusal to realistically discuss drug use "part of the problem" and suggested the ONDCP was relying on marijuana "propaganda." Rep. Cohen questioned the drug czar's statistics that can be seen in this video and also criticized the office for not addressing the National Institute on Drug Abuse's obstruction of research for medicinal marijuana.

"Every objective study on marijuana has concluded that it poses less harm than alcohol to the consumer and society. Government officials should not be prohibited by law from acknowledging that," said Dan Riffle of the Marijuana Policy Project.

However, in Wednesday's New York Times, Orrin Devinsky and Daniel Friedman, physicians at the NYU Comprehensive Epilepsy Center wrote, "The truth is we lack evidence not only for the efficacy of marijuana, but also for its safety." The physicians said the recent wave of state legislatures approving medical marijuana raises "significant concerns." They agree that marijuana should be changed from a schedule 1 controlled substance and that roadblocks for studies should be removed.

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The physicians will begin their two-year study in 2014 on the effects of marijuana for epilepsy patients. In order to do the study, they have to keep the product in a 1,200-pound safe in a locked room in a building with an alarm system, since it is designated as a dangerous drug.

Politicians supporting a change in classification aren't necessarily from pot friendly states. Cohen state of Tennessee has only recently introduced a medical marijuana bill for its state and has some of the strictest marijuana penalties. A single gram can send a person to jail for a year with a mandatory fine between $250 and $2,500. Blumenauer's state of Oregon approved medical marijuana in 2013, but voted down recreational marijuana in 2012. As of now there is no legislation written for November's 2014 elections to end marijuana prohibition, but the Oregon lawmakers continue meeting up to March 9.

Marijuana is listed as a schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substance Act, which puts it in a class with heroin and worse than cocaine. Congress created the act and has the power to change it. The DEA and the FDA can also make changes and are widely thought to be the only government bodies in charge of the list. However, Congress in 2005 added a restriction for pseudoephedrine and ephedrine, demonstrating its power to alter the act. 

Wednesday, Cohen joined a group that wrote a letter requesting President Obama to push Attorney General Holder to delist or classify marijuana in an appropriate way.

Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado introduced a bill, H.R. 499, in February of 2013 that would decriminalize marijuana at the federal level. It was referred to a subcommittee and has not come up or a vote. There does not appear to be enough votes for it to pass, so it has stayed on the sidelines.

In sponsoring the Unmuzzle the Drug Czar Act, Rep. Cohen said, "My bill would give the ONDCP the freedom to use science -- not ideology -- in its recommendations and give the American people a reason to trust what they are told."

-- Written by Debra Borchardt in New York

Disclosure: TheStreet's editorial policy prohibits staff editors, reporters and analysts from holding positions in any individual stocks.

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