Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Pot Shots Obama's Mixed Messages on Marijuana

Two days after Barack Obama became President, DEA agents led a raid on a
South Lake Tahoe dispensary run by a wheelchair-bound entrepreneur named
Ken Estes. They seized about five pounds of cannabis and a few thousands
dollars. They arrested no one. "It was a typical rip-and-run" said a
friend who had spoken with Estes.

In years past, when dispensaries run by Estes had been closed by law
enforcement, activists would tsk-tsk about the looseness of his
management style, as if Estes had drawn the heat on himself. This time
Ol' Ken was seen as a brave, tax-paying victim and scorn was
directed at the DEA for ignoring Obama's alleged promise to end such
raids. A few verbal militants blamed the new President himself for not
seeing to it that his "promise" was kept from the day he took

What, if anything, has Obama promised with respect to the marijuana
laws? A message posted on the Obama for America website after Nov. 4
disparaged DEA raids on dispensaries, but the syntax is garbled, the
objection is to individual patients getting arrested, and the authorship
is anonymous and unofficial: "Many states have laws that condone medical
marijuana, but the Bush Administration is using federal drug enforcement
agents to raid these facilities and arrest seriously ill people.
Focusing scarce law enforcement resources on these patients who pose no
threat while many violent and highly dangerous drug traffickers are at
large makes no sense. Senator Obama will not continue the Bush policy
when he is president."

On the campaign trail when Obama was asked by a Willamette Week
reporter, "Would you stop the DEA's raids on Oregon medical marijuana
growers?" he replied, "I would because I think our federal agents have
better things to do, like catching criminals and preventing terrorism.
The way I want to approach the issue of medical marijuana is to base it
on science, and if there is sound science that supports the use of
medical marijuana and if it is controlled and prescribed in a way that
other medicine is prescribed, then it's something that I think we should

In March 2008, also in Oregon (where a primary win would give him the
nomination), Obama told Gary Nelson of the Medford Mail Tribune:

"When it comes to medical marijuana, I have more of a practical view
than anything else. My attitude is that if it's an issue of doctors
prescribing medical marijuana as a treatment for glaucoma or as a cancer
treatment, I think that should be appropriate because there really is no
difference between that and a doctor prescribing morphine or anything

"I think there are legitimate concerns in not wanting to allow
people to grow their own or start setting up mom and pop shops because
at that point it becomes fairly difficult to regulate. [Obama must have
gotten input from parties that don't like the way cannabis is produced
and distributed in Oregon, California and the other mmj states.]

"Again, I'm not familiar with all the details of the initiative that
was passed [in Oregon] and what safeguards there were in place, but I
think the basic concept that using medical marijuana in the same way,
with the same controls as other drugs prescribed by doctors, I think
that's entirely appropriate...

"I would not punish doctors if it's prescribed in a way that is
appropriate. That may require some changes in federal law. I will tell
you that — I mean I want to be honest with you±whether I want to
use a whole lot of political capital on that issue when we're trying to
get health care passed or end the war in Iraq, the likelihood of that
being real high on my list is not likely... What I'm not going to be
doing is using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state
laws on this issue simply because I want folks to be investigating
violent crimes and potential terrorism. We've got a lot of things for
our law enforcement officers to deal with."

Two Misleading Assumptions

Obama's comment about using his political capital to achieve more
important goals was said in a tone and accompanied by a smile that
conveyed, "This is a reality that you and I both understand..." But
it's a self-fulfilling reality that involves two misleading assumptions.
You and I and Barack Obama and Nelson of the Mail-Tribune know that the
polls consistently show 75-80% of the American people wanting the
marijuana laws to allow medical use. Relatively few voters woud be
alienated if the new President directed the DEA to respect the relevant
state laws --or if his Attorney General classified marijuana as
something other than a Schedule-1 drug. Those steps would not be
unpopular with the masses and taking them would only cost Obama
"political capital" if he's defining it as something other
than "popular support." So he must be referring to his
political capital vis-à-vis the corporate elites and a Congress that
does their bidding.

And why assume ending marijuana prohibition would be a less significant
political achievement than reforming the healthcare system or getting US
troops out of Iraq? Looking back at the changes effected in 1932,
ending alcohol prohibition doesn't seem trivial compared to the
public works projects and economic reforms instituted by FDR in response
to the depression.

If and when impediments to medical marijuana use are removed and the
American people begin to avail themselves of it en masse, the
pharmaceutical manufacturers will lose a third or more of their sales.

This unspoken consequence of legalizing medical marijuana is a
certainty. Want proof? Doctors who have monitored cannabis use by
hundreds of thousands of patients in California and Oregon can document
a consistent pattern of decreased use of pharmaceuticals –a 50%
reduction of opioid use, for example. Recall that the present depression
was precipitated by a small drop in housing prices. The demise of Big
Pharma would, in and of itself, impel healthcare reform.

Our prevailing "healthcare system" has been configured to
maximize drug-company profits, not the well-being of the American

Ken Estes said it perfectly to KTVU's Patti Lee, who did a piece about
the raid that shut him down: "I know Obama's got really serious
issues. This is actually one of the serious issues…" The Jan. 22
raid in South Lake Tahoe might have been averted if drug-policy reform
lobbyists in Washington had clout with Obama's transition team. They
didn't. George Soros and Peter Lewis paid --millions in campaign
contributions-- but their operatives didn't get to "play…" Whether
the feds will continue to raid California growers and distributors
should be clarified when a new DEA Administrator is nominated by
Attorney General Eric Holder and appears before the Senate Judiciary
Committee chaired by Pat Leahy of Vermont.

Desperately Seeking Drug Czar

Former Biden aide Chris Putala —a former boyfriend of Anne
Coulter— is one of two transition team members in charge of finding
a new director for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, i.e.,
drug czar. On Inauguration Day the White House quietly named an acting
interim director — Ed Jurith, who has been ONDCP's chief
counsel since 1994. Jurith served as placeholder czar in the year-long
interregnum between Gen. Barry McCaffrey and John Walters. In the 1980s
Jurith helped draft the Anti-Drug Abuse Acts creating the ONDCP (and
mandatory minimums, and the sentencing disparity between crack and
powder cocaine, among other cruel provisions). Sen. Joe Biden sponsored
legislation creating the Acts.

The other transition teamer involved in the drug czar search is Dr. Don
Vereen, a former ONDCP functionary who has expressed disdain for doctors
who approve cannabis use.

Nor one of the reform lobbies –not NORML, Americans for Safe Access,
the Drug Policy Alliance, or the Marijuana Policy Project— has
called for abolishing the Drug Czar's office and putting drug policy
under the Surgeon General, where it belongs. Their honchos will all say
privately that they agree, of course, that the Drug Czar's office
has done nothing but spread Prohibitionist propaganda from its
inception. But calling for its abolition would cost them their coveted
–and illusory—"seat at the table."

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