President Joe Biden made waves Thursday when he announced a mass pardon for those convicted on federal charges for simple possession of marijuana, and took other actions aimed at federal decriminalization of the drug. For many states, the president’s announcement marks a watershed moment in drug policy — here in Alaska, it’s simply an overdue recognition that the federal government needs to follow states’ lead on marijuana legalization.
Catching up to the times
Even the initial listing in 1970 of marijuana as a Schedule 1 controlled substance — the most dangerous class, indicating high potential for abuse and no medical value; even fentanyl and methamphetamine are scheduled as less dangerous — was known at the time to be an improper place for a relatively benign drug. Over time, as it became increasingly obvious that marijuana’s destructive potential was overblown and its benefits were being overlooked, pushes to decriminalize and legalize gained steam.
Here in Alaska, although marijuana remained technically illegal, a prescient clause in Alaska’s constitution protecting the right to privacy allowed many people to use it with little fear of serious legal repercussions — so long as they only possessed a small quantity for personal use. For decades, that minor protection put Alaska on the cutting edge of marijuana policy, a position it kept during the initial wave of full legalization by states. In 2014, Alaska voters opted to legalize the possession, use and sale of marijuana via ballot measure, overcoming a fear-driven campaign that made dubious claims about disastrous effects from legal pot.
An economic boon
Nearly eight years later, legal marijuana has largely been a success story for Alaska. Residents and visitors are able to purchase the drug with clear indications of its quantity and potency, and even consume it on-site at a few establishments. Fearmongering about huge increases in underage use of the drug hasn’t been reflected in reality; for the most part, it has become just another line of business. Additionally, its positive effects on the state economy are clear, with tax revenue from the drug supporting treatment and education efforts and the dozens of grow operations, dispensaries and testing facilities providing jobs for Alaskans.
Legalization has also been a net positive for the Alaska business community. A burgeoning network of small businesses has appeared, spawning new entrepreneurs, mom-and-pop shops and a whole new ecosystem of private investment and development. By nearly every measure, the move to legalize marijuana in Alaska has been a good thing.
With the federal shift in policy, some of the biggest barriers to operating a marijuana business could be eased. Even though marijuana is legal in Alaska, banks have shut down accounts and refused to do business with marijuana entrepreneurs because of its federal classification, resulting in inefficient and potentially dangerous cash operations for transactions, payroll and tax payments. If the federal government modifies its classification of marijuana, it could open the door for businesses to gain access to banks and even be listed on U.S. stock exchanges. This is long overdue.
With the federal government waking up to reality on marijuana, it’s time for the U.S. and state governments to take a broader look at overall drug policy and consider similar moves for psychedelics such as psilocybin, which are showing promise in treating post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, major depressive disorder and, poetically, drug addiction. Research institutions such as Johns Hopkins have made great strides in demonstrating the drugs’ potential; their efforts should be expanded and the government should consider how best to make such drugs available to the people they can help. Earlier this year, the Veterans Administration launched groundbreaking clinical trials of psychedelics as a potentially powerful treatment for PTSD, a scourge that affects far too many of our veterans and first responders. While full legalization may not yet be in the cards for most such drugs, we should be moving toward making them available in the ways that make the most sense, whether via prescription or under the care of medical personnel. Alaska could and should lead the nation by either decriminalizing or even legalizing many of these important compounds to help unlock their potentially positive uses.
The federal moves toward decriminalization of marijuana are welcome; they are also overdue. We shouldn’t wait another 52 years before making more commonsense moves on national drug policy. The federal government should expand research of the medical potential of psychedelics and take steps toward rescheduling those drugs as well. Following the science on their therapeutic potential could have major benefits for Americans currently suffering with few other good options.