The American Medical Association Reconsiders Marijuana. Will the Justice Department Follow?

More than 100 million Americans have smoked pot. Thirteen states have medical marijuana laws on the books, and a dozen more are considering legislation. Studies have shown that the substance can stimulate appetite, ease muscle spasms and numb pain.

Yet since 1970, when Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substance Act into law, the time-slowing green plant known as marijuana has been a Schedule 1 controlled substance: classified alongside drugs like heroin and PCP—and deemed more harmful than cocaine, meth, and Ketamine. Pot advocates call that reality the "Schedule I Lie" —referring to the drug's federal classification as the most potent of drugs, considered, by law, to have "no accepted medical use."

The idea that a few tokes every now and then is more harmful than the recreational use of dog tranquilizer seems a bit, well, bogus, considering its mainstream acceptance. Barack Obama has openly admitted to smoking pot; Michael Phelps has tried it (and still managed to bring home eight gold medals); and earlier this year, attorney general Eric Holder discouraged U.S. attorneys from prosecuting retailers in medical marijuana states. There are pot TV shows and cities (like Oakland) that are now taxing the drug's medicinal use to bring in extra revenue.

Yet despite how the culture around pot has changed, defenders of the current federal policy have clung to a prominent, and trusted, ally to back them: the American Medical Association, which the justice department often cites when enforcing marijuana policy.

So it it might have come as a surprise on Tuesday when the AMA announced that, after 72 years, it was reversing its pot policy—and urged the federal government to do the same. Precipitated by a similar decision by the group's Medical Student Section, the AMA resolved that "that marijuana's status as a federal Schedule 1 controlled substance be reviewed," with the goal of facilitating clinical research, and presented a new medical report, conducted by its Council on Science and Public Health, laying out the drug's various medical benefits.

The AMA hopes the resolution will make clinical research on cannabis—long a roadblock in proving that the substance was ill-classified—a more-easily obtained reality. At present, getting the necessary clearance to study a Schedule 1 drug is a near-impossible bureaucratic nightmare that involves multiple government agencies, and purchase of notoriously low-potency pot from the government's only legal growth facility, at the University of Mississippi. As a result, "only a small number of randomized, controlled trials have been conducted on smoked cannabis," physician (and AMA board member) Edward Langston told the Los Angeles Times earlier this week.

Tthe AMA move is a powerful symbolic gesture—"a huge shift in medical ideology," says the medical student who spearheaded the resolution—and demolishes the long-held pot prohibitionist claim that "no sound scientific studies have supported medical use of smoked marijuana."

Realistically, however, the future looks hazy. "This is symbolic if nothing else because the AMA is abandoning this flat-earth policy it's held for decades," says Paul Armentano, the deputy director of the National Organization for Reform of the Marijuana Laws and the coauthor of Marijuana Is Safer; So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?. "But does the AMA have the power to reschedule marijuana, or even get the ball rolling so that those who have the power will do it? I highly doubt it."

As of Friday, the Justice Department was still touting the AMA's outdated stance, on a Web page devoted to debunking the "myth" of medical marijuana.

Jessica Bennett is a staff writer at NEWSWEEK, where she covers women's issues and cultural affairs. Read NEWSWEEK's full coverage of the medical marijuana debate.