Marijuana Arrests Fuel ‘War on Drugs,’ Administration Should Support, Not Hinder Change Advanced in Colo., and Wash.

December 7, 2012

by Jeremy Leaming

The Obama administration may be on the verge of irking large swaths of its supporters by employing scarce Justice Department resources to go after users of small amounts of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, where voters, by comfortable margins, voted to legalize limited amounts of possession.

The New York Times’ Charlie Savage reports that senior officials in the administration “are considering plans for legal action against Colorado and Washington that could undermine voter-approved initiatives to legalize the recreational use of marijuana in those states, according to several people familiar with the deliberations.” Savage goes on to describe some of the possibilities the administration could take – sue the states arguing that federal law trumps state action in this area. (The Controlled Substances Act prohibits sale and possession of marijuana.) The Justice Department wouldn’t talk to Savage about administration plans on the matter, but did highlight a statement issued recently by the U.S. Attorney in Seattle, stating that marijuana remained illegal pursuant to the CSA.

Andrew Sullivan notes that Pete Guither views the Savage piece as a trial balloon “to see what kinds of reactions there are and what political fallout might come from action … or inaction."

Sullivan obliges, writing that if administration officials decide “to treat the law-abiding citizens of Colorado and Washington as dangerous felons; if they decide to allocate their precious law enforcement powers to persecuting and arresting people for following a state law that they have themselves just passed by clear majorities; if they decide that opposing a near majority of Americans in continuing to prosecute the drug war on marijuana, even when the core of their own supporters want an end to Prohibition, and when that Prohibition makes no sense … then we will give them hell.”

And, Sullivan warns “it will get personal. The president wasn’t just once a pot-smoker, he was a very serious pothead. His own life and career prove that this substance is no more potentially damaging to a human being than alcohol, which is not only legal but marketed to us with abandon.”

But beyond pissing off supporters, the administration, if it moves forward on prosecuting folks in Colorado and Washington for using small amounts of marijuana it will signal a continuation of the so-called War on Drugs. That war launched by President Richard Nixon and heightened by his successors has been outrageously expensive and woefully ineffective.

More importantly the so-called war on drugs has disproportionately harmed the lives of minorities. The Drug Policy Alliance has published studies revealing that marijuana arrests overwhelmingly are of minority men. “From 2006 through 2008, major cities in California arrested and prosecuted Latinos for marijuana possession at double to nearly triple the rate of whites,” one report notes. Similarly the study showed, during the same timeframe the state “arrested blacks at four, five, six, seven and even twelve times the rate of whites.”

Last year in an editorial, The New York Times also took note of the high percentage of African Americans arrested for marijuana possession. “In 2010 more than 50,000 people were arrested for possession of marijuana; a vast majority of them were racial minorities and males.”

The editorial concluded, “Young African-Americans and Hispanics, who are disproportionately singled-out in street stops, make up a high percentage of people arrested for marijuana possession – despite federal data showing that whites are more likely to consume marijuana. This policing practice has damaged young lives and deserves deeper scrutiny by federal and state monitors.”

And recent FBI information shows that marijuana arrests far outpace arrests for possession of other drugs. As noted by NORML’s Paul Armentano, police “made 853,838 arrests in 2010 for marijuana-related offenses” according to an FBI annual crime report.

According to the FBI’s own report marijuana arrests are what drive the so-called war on drugs. That report, Armentano noted, revealed that “marijuana arrests now comprise more than one-half (52 percent) of all drug arrests in the United States.”

There are many who quickly assume that arrests for crack, cocaine and heroin are fueling the so-called drug war. They are not. Overwhelmingly the FBI’s own reporting shows that the wobbly war is largely all about marijuana.

In guest post for ACSblog, University of Denver law school professor Sam Kamin says the administration does not have to continue an aggressive stance against marijuana, noting that the government “could move to reclassify marijuana as a less serious substance – permitting its medical use under some conditions – or could remove it entirely from the list of controlled substances.”

The Obama administration has taken some action to reform drug sentencing disparities. It should have the courage to move away from the failed war on drugs. As Timothy Egan recently wrote for The New York Times it’s not whether Obama has backing for such action – he does – the question is “whether the president will have the backbone.”  

Progressives in Colorado and Washington are leading the way; the Obama administration should also show some leadership.