The US Surgeon General came out in support of federal cannabis decriminalization in an interview with CNN.

“When it comes to decriminalization, I don’t think that there is value to individuals or to society to lock people up for marijuana use,” Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said. “I don’t think that serves anybody well.”

“When it comes to marijuana, I think we have to let science guide us,” he said. “And we know that the science tells us that there are some benefits to marijuana from a medical perspective but there are also some harms that we have to consider—and we have to put those together as we think about the right policy.”

The top doctor in the US made the comments in response to a question regarding a draft federal cannabis legalization bill recently unveiled by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and other prominent senators.

While Murthy, who also served as surgeon general for two and a half years in Obama’s administration, appears to favor ending incarceration for low-level cannabis offenses, he didn’t, however, put his weight behind comprehensive marijuana legalization. Rather, like in a 2018 interview when he voiced concerns “about how rapidly states have been legalizing marijuana” due to a “lot of unknowns” about its long-term effects, he emphasized the need for lawmakers to exercise caution and take their cues from scientists before implementing the policy change.

“In terms of our approach to marijuana, I worry when we don’t let science guide our process and policymaking,” Murthy continued. “And as surgeon general that’s my role, to work with policymakers who work with members in the community and the general public to help people understand what science tells us and where you have gaps, to help fill those gaps with research and with honest inquiry.”

Murthy was reappointed by the Biden administration as surgeon general in March 2021 having served on the president’s COVID-19 advisory board from November 2020. While not a strong ally of the marijuana reform movement, he did acknowledge the therapeutic benefits of cannabis as far back as 2015 during an interview concerning the safety and efficacy of the measles vaccine. His cautious approach, however, is perhaps to be expected given President Joe Biden’s reluctance to embrace full marijuana legalization.

His comments, however, are a world apart from those of officials who’ve previously held office as the US Surgeon General. One particularly striking example is a statement from 1982 by Charles Everett Koop, who served under Ronald Reagan’s administration.

“Marijuana use is a major public health problem in the United States,” it reads before noting the “findings of health hazards associated with marijuana use.”

The list of hazards includes “short-term memory impairment and slowness of learning… impaired immune response” and “possible adverse effects on heart function,” as well as concerns about “long-term developmental effects in children and adolescents,” among others.

The statement makes other hyperbolic claims such as marijuana’s propensity to cause “amotivational syndrome” in children, which is characterized by “a pattern of energy loss, diminished school performance, harmed parental relationships, and other behavioral disruptions.”

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