A Change to Federal Marijuana: Policy Brief

By: Brandon Lancaster


            Cannabis within the United States is a controversial subject. Many religious groups condemn the substance as evil, and this belief is further aided by the classification of marijuana on the federal level. This brief seeks to breakdown the current policy surrounding marijuana in the United States. In addition, it also hopes to present a plausible alternative to how cannabis is handled policy-wise as to keep it as factual and free from propaganda as possible.


Key Points:

  • Marijuana became illegal in the 1900s, based mainly off Harry Anslinger’s racist narrative
  • Due to the racist narrative, the health policies restrict possible research on marijuana’s medicinal effects
  • The Federal and State governments in the United States differ on the use and classification of marijuana

Marijuana initially started as a cash crop for the United States’ economy. Cannabis’ legal status owes its change to Harry Anslinger, the starting commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. According to multiple sources, Anslinger played upon the fear of minorities in the white community to create a negative narrative for marijuana, eventually making it illegal (Perlman; McGettigan). This policy branded marijuana with a stigma embedded within America’s very foundation. As such, the stigma lives with marijuana to this very day. According to the Controlled Substances Act List (2020), marijuana is considered a Schedule I drug, a substance with no medicinal effects and poses a high risk of abuse (pg. 11; Drugs of Abuse, 2017, pg. 9). The policies based on racist propaganda still prevail to this day. It completely disregards research and documented results from cannabis use ranging from Raphael Mechoulam’s discovery of epilepsy symptom suppression to Mr. Consrue’s Multiple Sclerosis assistance and even to Moriah Barnhart’s Cannamoms (Peters II; Vitiello, 2020). As such, the research which could be spent investigating and narrowing marijuana’s medicinal effects have halted.

In addition, some states choose to oppose the federal marijuana policy. Over half of all the states permit medical marijuana use, which is in direct opposition to federal policy. The difference between the policies are the narratives behind marijuana. States base their policies on medical research, hence half of states allowing medical but not necessarily decriminalizing the substance. As so, marijuana proved itself valuable enough to be considered an essential business during a pandemic, at least within Pennsylvania.  

Policy Assessment

            The federal policy needs to change if it is to have any credibility. Racism is not a strong enough evidence of marijuana’s inability to be considered a useful drug. In doing so, many citizens are robbed of treatment towards their medical conditions. It costs more to the citizens and the nation to impose a policy which directly stops assistance to those in need. The policy must change to fit a more credible and viable standing. Real research needs to commence to determine marijuana’s true viability.

Alternative Policies

To fix the federal policy surrounding marijuana, five alternative policies were proposed: 1) Enforce marijuana’s illegality, 2) Permit medical marijuana, but do not decriminalize, 3) Decriminalize marijuana, however medical use is prohibited, 4) Decriminalize and permit marijuana use, and 5) Legalize marijuana. These came from the chart on the Defense Information Systems Agency’s website, which can be found in Appendix A.

The first alternative sends major costs to the state policies and to those currently using medical marijuana. According to the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) (2020), 35 states and Washington D.C. (36 total) would have to change their medical marijuana policies, forcing thousands of patients to lose access to a valuable medicine (according to the chart). As this enforces the current policy, it enforces assimilation to federal policy, but to one based on racism and fear rather than concrete research. The policy is therefore based off raw emotion with no concrete backing. The same could be said for the third alternative. Decriminalizing marijuana changes the narrative by not making it quite as severe, but it still holds on to forbidding research and medical use.

            The fourth and fifth alternatives are very similar, where the fifth allows for the widest acceptance of marijuana. Both seek to not only decriminalize but allow medical research and use, which will give marijuana its standing. However, these two do not account for the public abusing the substance, regardless if it poses a high risk or not. As the medical research was halted by the CSA’s classification and the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, marijuana’s medical uses are ill defined. Giving the public full reign to this unknown substance is too much of a risk to the potential policy. The policy would seem extremely skewed to its proponents instead of balancing interests.

            Thus, the second alternative poses the greatest success rate, comparing its costs and benefits. Cannabis would be legal medically, but not recreationally so to observe its effects first. It would also allow patients who need to full access across the nation and decrease the number of dependents on opioids.

Policy Proposition

The policy proposed is one based on changing the narrative behind marijuana. To unravel its entanglement with racism, the policy needs to include research in steps as to give it more viability within the medical realm. The main focal points on the policy would look like this:

  • Marijuana is legal medically, but not recreationally
  • Medical marijuana’s federal qualifying conditions act as a basis for the states’ lists, but can be expanded upon
  • Medical research of marijuana’s medicinal effects is permitted
  • Within the span of the next few decades, if marijuana proves itself to truly be worthy of being an assistive drug, it should be sold over the counter

The first point allows for cannabis regulation and observance to ensure it is used properly. If cannabis is to have a solid standing, the effects first need to be determined before anyone freely uses it. Next, the base qualifying list gives a base for research across the country on marijuana. It will give rise to research opportunities and commence the process of changing the narrative. It would also help on the balancing of government power, as a degree of autonomy with marijuana policy creation specific to states. The next two points are intertwined. With the policy permitting medical research, it also gives a timeline to determine the effects. This acts as a protective measure to the public in case the substance has confounding consequences. It also appeases to those who believe marijuana is a gateway drug and has no place within America. These four points would slowly but surely chip away at people’s perception of marijuana. With the federal government’s policy enforcing the research, a medical focus will begin replacing the racist narrative. The public will hear more about how cannabis works medically and thus elect those who will reflect their opinion whether it is truly medicine or a harmful drug.


The Politics of Marijuana: Truth Regimes and Institutional Ignorance, by Timothy McGettigan

Reefer Blues: Building Social Equity in the Era of Marijuana Legalization, by Melissa Perlman.

Marijuana Symposium: Marijuana Legalization, Racial Disparity, and the Hope for Reform, by Michael Vitiello

Patients and Caregivers Report Using Medical Marijuana to Decrease Prescription Narcotics Use by David C. Peters II

Defense Information Systems Agency


Controlled Substances Act List https://www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/schedules/orangebook/c_cs_alpha.pdf

Drugs of Abuse by US Department of Justice and Drug Enforcement Administration https://www.dea.gov/sites/default/files/drug_of_abuse.pdf

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