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A federal tipping point for marijuana?



In 2008, Michigan was the 12th state to legalize medical marijuana. After that, I used to eagerly count on my fingers and toes how many states had medical use. I figured that once a majority of states had medical marijuana laws, it would tip the scales for the federal government to do something.

I was wrong about that. There are now 30 states with some kind of medical marijuana accommodation. On top of that, nine states and the District of Columbia have gone further and legalized recreational marijuana. Michigan will be voting on that come November, while Utah votes on medical use.

All that is prelude to pointing out that a lot of states have legalized and the feds still stonewall. The Drug Enforcement Administration has stubbornly maintained marijuana as a Schedule 1 dangerous drug because it insists that it has "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse." 

Something has happened, however, that may cause a sea change in federal regulations regarding medical marijuana: The Food and Drug Administration has approved the marijuana-derived and CBD-based drug Epidiolex for sale in the United States. Children with seizure disorders called Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome may be treated with Epidiolex. So now there is an accepted medical use according to government standards.

Epidiolex is a product developed by the British company GW Pharmaceuticals. GW's Epidiolex and another marijuana-derived drug, Sativex, have been available several years and are now on sale in 30 countries. Sativex is a THC-based extract for relief of the side effects of chemotherapy.

Now that the FDA has approved Epidiolex, before it can be sold in the United States, the DEA will have to remove it from Schedule 1. That will open up more opportunities for researchers who want to figure out what marijuana can and cannot help. This marks the beginning of the era of marijuana as a source of prescription drugs.

It will also take away the snide "it's not medicine" comment from the doubters and drug warriors — rolling back another layer of marijuana's stigma. And it will take away a central plank of the War on Drugs — that was made up in the first place — and return cannabis to the medical pharmacopeia.

This is huge, and it signals a seismic shift in the direction of medical marijuana. There seem to be a lot of key shifts taking place regarding marijuana, and it all seems a bit more significant than usual.

It's no secret that retail sales of legal marijuana are scheduled to start north of the border on Oct. 17. That will make Canada the second entire country to legalize recreational use; Uruguay is the other. The president may be feuding with Prime Minister Trudeau, but I think most Americans are just fine with our neighbors to the north. Legalization there will be met with little reaction here.

Oklahoma and Utah have entered the marijuana zone. Once upon a time, it was places like Colorado and California shaking the marijuana tree, but now even folks in Muskogee have recently voted for medical marijuana. And the Mormon Tabernacle Choir gets to vote on it this fall. Talk about your heavenly harmonies!

I know Washington doesn't put much faith in international organizations these days but the World Health Organization just declared CBD, a component of marijuana, a safe medication "not associated with abuse potential." This shows that more and more international bodies are giving up the false charges against marijuana.

In this time of troubling partisanship in legislatures, maybe it's marijuana that will bring us all together. Last month, bipartisan STATES Act bills that would federally recognize state marijuana laws where they have been passed were introduced in both the House and Senate.

On top of that, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) introduced legislation to end federal marijuana prohibition — the Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act. A feature of Schumer's legislation is that it would deschedule marijuana rather than reschedule it. That's a key point because rescheduling it as a Schedule 2 drug could cause problems in the medical marijuana system as it currently exists. If marijuana were rescheduled to Schedule 2, it would have to follow all the rules of a Schedule 2 drug. It would only be dispensed at pharmacies and face limits on refills. Dispensaries and home growing would be illegal. Some of that would also come into effect if marijuana were Schedule 3 or 4. Descheduling it entirely makes that list of problems go away — and would make sense for a substance that is more and more accepted for recreational use.

I expect that this November Michigan will move the number of states that have legalized recreational marijuana into the double digits and move my count beyond fingers onto the toes.

More statewide moves

Now that the recreational legalization question is set for the fall ballot, one might expect the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol to be out there, full-on campaigning for the cause. But not much is going on, which is to be expected. First of all, whatever money is to be spent will be better spent later, as we approach the election, rather than sooner. As a matter of fact, CRMLA is still trying to raise money for the campaign.

Polling shows that public opinion is solidly behind the idea, so at this point a quiet campaign makes sense. CRMLA folks have exhibited outstanding discipline when it comes to message control — better to stay silent than to say the wrong thing. Their battle is to hold onto the voters who already support them rather than convincing someone to change their minds. That's the battle the prohibitionists have to fight.

In fact, the Democratic candidates this year have done a good job of keeping marijuana at the forefront of the political season. Attorney General candidate Dana Nessel openly courted marijuana activists and used their numbers at the state convention to put her over the top. In a recent analysis from the camp of the defeated Pat Miles, a political consultant revealed: "I did not think it was as powerful [an] issue as it turned out to be." 

It's resonating as a subtext of the election that will be more about who wants to collaborate with or resist the Trump administration. Candidate Shri Thanedar's pronouncements about marijuana have pushed his Democrat opponents to publicly embrace the legalization issue because that is where the people are. Republican candidates have a "will of the people" approach and it seems that nobody at all is railing against it. It could be that campaigning against marijuana is political suicide this year.

In addition, some conservatives are fearful of a wave of motivated marijuana voters at the polls. The folks who study election science say that a popular issue such as legalization can drive 2 percent to 3 percent more voters to the polls. If those voters are more liberal than conservative, then they might vote that way on choosing representatives too. Some of this will be settled in August, and more will be settled in November. Then we'll see if marijuana has coattails or if it's a candidate-killer.

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