Advocates of legalized and decriminalized marijuana in the United States have reason to be excited these days. 2014 was a year of steady progress, with some major strides on both the state and federal level.
On Monday, the campaign received another boost from unlikely quarters: the pediatric community.
In a new policy statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics adjusted its stance on marijuana, calling for lawmakers to decriminalize the drug and reclassify its status as a controlled substance in order to ease research on its effects on the body.
A shift in emphasis: The AAP's recommendation that marijuana undergo decriminalization — the minimization or elimination of criminal penalties, such as prison time, for minor possession — is an important addition to the national conversation about marijuana use. The AAP contends that adolescents who need medical marijuana should be treated as patients deserving of treatment rather than criminals who deserve punishment. It further states that the current set of penalties for possession, which stain young people's records and cause difficulties with jobs and housing, are an inappropriate response to the substance.
The ultimate goal is that decriminalizing the drug "takes this whole issue out of the criminal justice system and puts it into the health system, where it really should be," Dr. Seth Ammerman, the statement's lead author from Stanford University in California, told Reuters.
The AAP also advocates for relaxing marijuana's classification from a Schedule I drug to a Schedule II drug under the Drug Enforcement Administration. Schedule I drugs, which include drugs such as heroin and ecstasy, are the most highly restricted drugs in the eyes of the law, and considered to have no medical use. The Schedule I categorization has imposed an extraordinary catch-22 on research efforts on marijuana, which the Wire once summed up thusly: "Marijuana is illegal because the [DEA] says it has no proven medical value, but researchers have to get approval from the DEA to research marijuana's medical value."
Not full legalization: The group explicitly advocates against fully legalizing marijuana, citing "the potential harms to children and adolescents." The organization fears that legalization campaigns targeted at adults will downplay the health and behavioral risks for a population acutely at risk of some of marijuana's potential adverse effects on the brain. It recommends studying recent legalization efforts on the state level, such as in Colorado, to develop a better understanding of how legalization for adults will shape adolescent use.
The AAP's statement is a positive step forward for the legalization movement. Decriminalization is sometimes an incremental measure that helps pave the path for subsequent efforts to legalize. Its reasoning about the risks of legalization is on shaky ground; there's a strong case to be made that taking the drug off the black market and regulating it is the easiest way to decrease young people's access to the drug. But the concern that its cultural normalization could cause people to overlook its adverse effects on adolescents (which have been poorly researched anyway) is a healthy reminder that prudence is better than a blind embrace of a substance we have yet to fully understand.