Lawmakers, Pundits Urge Administration to Stop Supporting a Failed ‘War on Drugs’

December 12, 2012

by Jeremy Leaming

If the Obama administration decides to move aggressively to scuttle efforts in Colorado and Washington State to take a different – many would say progressive – approach to the war on marijuana it won’t be because the administration had no alternative. Indeed plenty of academics, pundits and federal lawmakers are hoping the administration will support, not hinder, the experimentations in those two progressive Western states and are airing plenty of ways the administration could respond.

University of Denver law school professor Sam Kamin detailed some of the possibilities the government could take with respect to the marijuana legalization initiatives that passed with strong support in Colorado and Washington. One of the possibilities Kamin highlighted was a bill recently introduced by Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) “allowing states to essentially opt of the CSA [Controlled Substances Act outlaws marijuana and is administrated by the Drug Enforcement Agency] enforcement by passing laws that conflict with the federal prohibition ….”

Rep. DeGette in a press statement announcing the legislation said several of her colleagues were concerned “about the federal government’s ability to override these voter-approved initiatives ….”

“In Colorado,” DeGette said, “we’ve witnessed the aggressive policies of the federal government in their treatment of legal medicinal marijuana providers. My constituents have spoken and I don’t want the federal government denying money to Colorado or taking punitive steps that would undermine the will of our citizens.”

In a piece for Rolling Stone, Tim Dickinson writes that while the federal government “cannot force” Colorado and Washington “to impose criminal sanctions on pot possession,” the federal government “has great power” to block the states’ abilities to tax and regulate the sale of marijuana. (In an editorial, the magazine’s publisher Jann S. Wenner hopes the president won’t tap that power and urges an end to the war on weed calling it a “sham, a folly, a colossal waste of money and human potential.”)

Drug Policy Alliance Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann, as highlighted by Andrew Sullivan in a post titled “Will Obama Keep Fighting The Dumbest War Of All?,” sees a glimmer of hope that the administration might not, at least right away, employ significant resources to fight legalization efforts in Colorado and Washington.

The federal government and its drug enforcement officials can point out, as they have before, that marijuana is prohibited by the federal law – it cannot be manufactured, sold or consumed, “that’s it,” Nadelmann says. But when one examines how the government has responded to decriminalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes, the matter “is not so simple.”

He notes that the government has allowed various states to set up their own mechanisms to regulate medical marijuana. The reaction has been mixed with federal attorneys being more aggressive towards medical marijuana setups in some states and less so in others. Toward the end of the video, Nadelmann adds that according to private discussions he has been made privy to that Obama and Vice President Joe Biden “are indicating a willingness to move in a somewhat new direction.” 

Despite long-winded and tired discussions of the potential dangers of marijuana – too many people become dependent upon it, those using it have drug problems and generally drugs are bad – many Americans appear to have moved on and concluded like Wenner and Timothy Egan that prohibition is indeed a failure. I’d add that many of the growing number of Americans supporting decriminalization have also concluded that anti-marijuana moralizers are as hypocritical as they are self-righteously annoying.   

In a Nov. 22 piece for The New York Times, Egan put it this way -- voters in Colorado and Washington “sent a message that arresting 853,000 people a year for marijuana offenses is an insult to a country built on individual freedom, a whiff of positive, even monumental change is in the air.”

Not only do those arrests fuel the drug war – yes marijuana arrests far outnumber those for cocaine and heroin – they disproportionately target minorities. Studies by the Drug Policy Alliance reveal that African Americans and Latinos are victims of the war on weed, being arrested at much higher rates than white people. The president and Attorney General are also aware of the suspect approach to enforcement of the marijuana prohibition. That approach to enforcement should alone be reason for the administration to stand back and see how things unfold in Colorado and Washington.