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Editorial & Opinion

Dylan Conley: It’s time to legalize cannabis



As a member of Congress, I would champion the legalization of cannabis for adult use. This change would remove the threat of criminal prosecution for the millions of people living in communities where cannabis is now legal.

Our nation’s ongoing struggle with Covid-19 has highlighted the hypocrisy of federal cannabis prohibition, a policy I believe should end. According to the Marijuana Policy Project, 23 states designated their respective cannabis businesses as “essential” during April of this year. Virtually all of these states have permitted patient-friendly regulatory changes for cannabis, such as curbside pickups for patients and increased availability of telemedicine options for cannabis recommendations from physicians. These changes are important, and it is my sincere hope that state regulators around the country make these accommodations permanent features of their cannabis programs. However, today we face the stark reality that tens of thousands of men and women are still being arrested for cannabis offenses while fellow citizens are taking advantage of curbside pickups of cleverly packaged cannabis products from dispensaries owned by massive, publicly trade corporations. This reality is unjust. 

The historical context on which cannabis prohibition was built is fraught with racial and political bias. The cannabis plant was once a common American agricultural crop. Thomas Jefferson grew hemp at Monticello and Benjamin Franklin started the first commercial cannabis company in the Americas by incorporating hemp fibers into a paper mill. In fact, both Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” and the first draft of the Declaration of Independence were printed on hemp. Even as late as 1942 the U.S. government produced a short film called “Hemp for Victory”, which encouraged farmers to grow hemp to help win World War II. It was not until a broad and intentional effort by the federal government to link cannabis to race and class, that it was severely criminalized.

To diminish its use, the federal government, through the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, helped popularize the concept that cannabis was primarily connected to black and Hispanic people and was a harbinger of violent crime. Indeed, in substituting the word “marihuana” for “cannabis” prohibitionists sought to convey a direct link between cannabis and Spanish speaking people. These racially motivated moves culminated in the passage of the Boggs Act, which made sentencing for drug crimes mandatory. The Boggs Act lead to minorities being arrested and imprisoned for cannabis related crimes at a rate three times higher than their white counterparts – a notorious legal legacy we continue to perpetuate to this day. A legacy that ultimately lead to forty years of a singular policy choice that encapsulates all of the head scratching contradictions embodied by the U.S. policy on cannabis prohibition. That choice is, of course, the designation of cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug. 

A Schedule 1 designation means that a drug is both very dangerous and has no medicinal value. Heroin is also Schedule 1 drug. Meth and cocaine are both Schedule 2 drugs, less restrictive classification. The federal government has repeatedly contracted its own position that cannabis should be completely verboten. One of the most glaring examples of this contradiction is Patent 6630507, held by the federal government, which covers “the potential use of non-psychoactive cannabinoids to protect the brain from damage or degeneration caused by certain diseases, such as cirrhosis.” One has to wonder, If cannabis is no more medically beneficial than heroin, why does the federal government maintain a patent on medical applications of cannabinoids? Also, how can the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approve a cannabis derived drug like Epidiolex while claiming that there are no known medical applications for cannabis? How can a country that has watched the very public coverage of children like Charlotte Figi accept this contradiction? The answer to this question can only be willful inertia. We should tolerate this inertia no longer.

All of this is not to say that cannabis can never cause any harm when used in egregious excess. But that has never been the standard we have used as a country. As a medicine, the addictiveness and lethality of opioids dwarfs the potential harms cited by even the most ardent opponents of cannabis. As a consumer product, consider the violence, and sickness, and death caused by alcohol each year in this country. And yet, we allow alcohol to be served on airplanes, to be sold in gas stations, and to advertised during the Super Bowl. Alcohol is legal because we have made the decision as a civil society to give individuals the freedom to weigh the benefits and costs of their actions and to make their own educated decisions. There is no logical, legal, or ethical reason why our policy on cannabis should be treated so radically different. This unique treatment of cannabis as both a medicine and consumer product should end.

As a member of Congress, I would champion the legalization of cannabis for adult use. This change would remove the threat of criminal prosecution for the millions of people living in communities where cannabis is now legal. It would also end the costly and harmful federal practice of prosecuting our citizens for actions that are crimes only because the Federal government refuses to change its policies to reflect the super majority of states across this country. I support eliminating the barriers at VA hospitals and clinics that hamstring physician recommendations of cannabis to our veterans. I support removing the unfair tax burden of 280E restrictions on deductible expenses for legal cannabis businesses. I support decriminalization of low-level cannabis offenses at the federal, state, and local levels, and believe that previous convictions should be expunged. In short, I support bringing our laws on cannabis in line with what we know to be true scientifically and what we know as a society to be just.

We live in a time of flux and Americans are re-examining fundamental tenants of our society. We are all efforting to redress the mistakes of our past and change the policies of our present so that our children will live in a society that does not satisfy itself with the belief that we must do what we have always done. In this case, the evidence is before us. The science is there. The people are speaking. Gallup polls indicate that over 66% of Americans believe cannabis should be legalized. To go even another year without significant change to our federal position on cannabis is to continue to bury our heads in the sand. And that is a mindset on which a free Republic should never, ever settle. We must do better.

I hope you will join me in my support for the legalization of cannabis in the support of my candidacy for Rhode Island’s Second Congressional District.

About the Author

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Dylan Conley is running for the U.S. House of Representatives in Rhode Island's Second Congressional District. A lifelong Rhode Islander, Dylan serves as the attorney for several municipalities, town councils, unions, planning and zoning boards, licensing boards, school committees, housing authorities, and private clients engaging local governments. He was part of Millennial Rhode Island’s first board of directors, serves on the board of the Federal Hill House Association, and is the Chair of the Providence Board of Licenses. Dylan lives in the West End of Providence with his wife, Jenica, their young son Copeland James, and beloved rescue pup Chewbacca.