Mr President, Don’t Even Think About It


Charlie Savage reports on the Obama administration's response to the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington. Balko is discouraged:

Notice what words and phrases do not appear in the New York Times article: pivot, possibly ending the war on drugs, whether our drug laws are doing more harm than good, the drug war a failure, crime and misery [the drug war] creates. You'd think that if Obama were going to "pivot," simply leaving alone two states that overwhelmingly legalized pot and gave him their electoral votes would be the best place to start.

Pete Guither sees the article as a trial balloon:

The article goes on to explore some potentially extreme options with no indication that these specific options are being considered. This appears to be a blatant political trial balloon using the New York Times to see what kinds of reactions there are and what political fallout might come from action… or inaction.

Well, since they're asking: if they 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 even when that Prohibition makes no sense … then we will give them hell.

And 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 damaginKush-trichome-closeupg to a human being than alcohol, which is not only legal but marketed to us with abandon. The future coalition he has built – especially its Millennial base – will splinter. Maybe even some libertarian Republicans will seize the issue and champion federalism consistently for a change.

But the main reason the president should instruct the Justice Department that this is not an area for discretionary prosecution is that choosing to focus on pot-prohibition in states that have legalized it defies reason. One of my core arguments for Obama has long been his adoption of what I consider pretty reasonable, if always debatable, policies. He is not an extremist, proposing laws and regulations that are designed to make a cultural point or wage a cultural war; he's a pragmatist, trying to fix existing problems.

Mr President, the electoral decisions of the citizens of two states are not an existing problem.

The personal legal use of marijuana in those states is not a problem.

The War on Drugs is the problem.

And the federal War on Marijuana is racist in its enforcement, ridiculous as a matter of science, outrageous in terms of personal liberty, and inimical to federalism. What we want – indeed demand – is the beginning of a review of whether the science justifies in any way the classification of cannabis as a Schedule One substance under federal law – making it as dangerous as heroin or cocaine. This didn't make any sense in 1970 when it took force; it makes even less sense today. Here is what defines a Schedule 1 substance:

The drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse.

The drug or other substance has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.

There is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.

Cannabis fails on all three counts. No currently acceptable medical use when 18 states and the District of Columbia now allow it for exactly such medical use? A lack of "accepted safety" even under medical supervision? How many overdoses have you heard of lately with marijuana – unless you count sleeping through American Horror Story an overdose? There is no case for marijuana under any sane, reasonable rubric to be classified as Schedule One. Instead of girding for tougher enforcement, the Obama administration should re-open the case for re-classifying marijuana, and leave the citizens of Washington and Colorado alone. There are precedents on a state level:

On Feb. 17, 2010, after reviewing testimony from four public hearings and reading through more than 10,000 pages of submitted material, members of the Iowa Board of Pharmacy unanimously voted to recommend that the Iowa legislature remove marijuana from Schedule I of the Iowa Controlled Substances Act.

Let's have this debate openly and honestly. Let the government prove that marijuana is as dangerous as heroin and should be treated as such. The very process will reveal the anachronism of the provision itself and the racial and cultural panic that created it. The very discussion will point to an inevitable, scientific conclusion that the current federal policy is based on nothing.

So do nothing, Mr president, with respect to these states and their legitimate decisions. Set the DEA's priorities so that this trivial, medically useful, pleasure is not in any way a priority for law enforcement. Let the states figure this out, as they are on marriage equality.

Lead from behind. An entire generation is ahead of you.

Update from a reader, who corrects me but underscores my broader point:

Cocaine is actually Schedule II (it has accepted medical uses and is on-hand in most ER's as a vaso-constrictor to stop bleeding) but it is not Schedule I as is implied.  So the Controlled Substances Act is saying cannabis is MORE dangerous than cocaine and even methamphetamine, which is also Schedule II and a prescription medication marketed under the brand "desoxyn".

(Photos: Saul Loeb/Getty, and a close-up of a bud of Kush cannabis from Wiki)