Tuesday, December 9, 2008
Obama sends mixed messages on marijuana
By Peter Schrag
Published: Tuesday, Dec. 09, 2008 | Page 19A
There were moments not so long ago when Barack Obama was signaling that he
was ready to end the costly and pointless federal raids on medical marijuana
users and their caretakers. In the past few years, those raids have hit
Californians particularly hard.
"The Justice Department going after sick individuals using this as a
palliative instead of going after serious criminals makes no sense," he said
in New Hampshire last year. In 2004, he seemed to favor the
decriminalization of pot altogether.
On the day Obama was elected, voters in Michigan, by a 63-37 margin, put
their state in the ranks of the 12 others that have passed medical marijuana
laws since California broke the ice in 1996. On the same day, Massachusetts
voters approved a measure that decriminalized possession of small amounts of
pot altogether. Both votes should have helped Obama to get off the fence.
But recent reports that Obama was considering Rep. Jim Ramstad, a moderate
Minnesota Republican who's retiring from Congress, for the post of White
House drug czar, send a very different message.
Ramstad, a recovering alcoholic, has been cheered as the sponsor of laws
requiring insurers to cover drug treatment and mental health services. But
he also voted for federal funding bans on needle exchanges and strongly
opposed measures to stop federal arrests of medical marijuana patients in
states like California where its use is legal.
There are reasons for Obama, like many other politicians, to be skittish
about the issue. He's acknowledged drug use in his past. He doesn't want to
trip on the matter when he has countless tougher things to deal with in his
first years in office.
But since millions of Americans are beginning to understand that the pursuit
of medical marijuana patients, and maybe much of the rest of the drug war,
is and has long been a self-defeating exercise, maybe it's time for a little
The biggest beneficiaries of the drug war are the criminal cartels that
process, import and market the stuff, the terrorists who tax it, and the
multibillion-dollar narcotics repression machinery that for 70 years has
always been its biggest advocate.
Last week the nation marked the 75th anniversary of the repeal of
Prohibition, another misbegotten experiment in social sanitation whose
greatest legatees were the organized crime syndicates that began operations
as bootleggers in the 1920s.
What became the federal law that effectively outlawed marijuana was enacted
in 1937, four years after Prohibition ended. Credit that to two men. One was
Harry Anslinger, who, as head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, was
building his empire. The other was newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst,
whose paper mills were competing for pulp sales with hemp growers in Mexico.
The message was the threat of "reefer madness," a fabricated myth echoed by
Hollywood and other papers that pot drove users to rape, murder and mayhem.
Worse, it was a Mexican drug (also used by blacks, jazz musicians and other
disreputable people). It became an additional weapon in the 1930s campaign
to deport and exclude Mexicans.
Congress acted on marijuana a generation after the first state outlawed the
drug. That state was Utah, from which some Mormons had moved to northwest
Mexico after their church banned polygamy. When their hopes for their
Mexican settlements didn't pan out, many returned in 1914-15, bringing
cannabis back with them. The church quickly banned it as against the Mormon
religion, and the Utah Legislature quickly followed.
According to the FBI's latest crime report, among the nation's 1.8 million
drug busts in 2007 were 775,000 for simple possession of marijuana for
personal use. That 1.8 million is roughly triple the number of arrests for
violent crime. Fewer than 20 percent of the arrests were for sales or
Drug control isn't a simple issue: Drug policies in Europe vary all over the
lot, although none is as punitive as ours. Last week, the Swiss approved the
indefinite extension of that nation's medically supervised heroin
administration program, created to get addicts off the streets, while at the
same time rejecting a proposal to decriminalize marijuana. The Swiss like
But what reformers call "harm reduction" â€“ meaning reducing all harm â€“ is
assuredly a better course than criminalizing everything.
Where does a good society draw the lines between personal responsibility,
treatment of addicts, and rigid criminal sanctions? How willing are we to
disrupt productive lives and families, how much are we willing to pay for
what benefit? How much could drug-related crime be reduced with smarter
policies? With the exception of the drug control establishment, how many of
us believe that we have a successful cost-efficient system that should be
left as it is? Californians, along with the other medical marijuana states,
have taken a little leadership. The least the feds could do now is leave us