While it is old news now, most people are aware that President Obama laughed off a question about marijuana legalization with a joke and a dismissal. At the time, Norm Stamper (a retired Seattle police chief and an advocate of drug policy reform, particularly medical marijuana) wrote a firm and direct article on Huffington Post, chiding the president for the joke. Mr. Stamper is a firm advocate of legalization, having seen the failure of the drug war from the front lines during his career in urban law enforcement. It is worth commenting that he has some street cred on the topic. He is motivated not merely by his views on the pragmatic failures of drug policy, but also by ideological advocacy of legalization through his involvement with the medical marijuana lobby.
I read his article at the time and strongly agreed with his position, though I thought he waved the bloody shirt a little bit. The anecdotal story about John or Jane Q. Public and their tragedy has never been my favorite political tactic, even before Joe the Plumber made it a sick joke. On the issue, however, Stamper is dead on.
Stamper's reaction was not the only reaction on HuffPo, nor was reaction limited to HuffPo. That same week, Ron Chusid wrote (quoting the SanFrancisco chronicle) about the DEA raiding a medical marijuana dispensary in San Francisco and on the topic (quoting Daniel Larison and Andrew Sullivan) of whether it is helpful or counter-productive for advocates of legalization to preface their comments with 'I don't smoke pot, but...', both pieces sparking their share of discussion. The second, particularly, sparked reaction from Jeremy Pober about the issue of pragmatic support for legalization vs philosophical support for legalization and whether or not the debate between the two points of view was counter-productive for the legalization campaign. Norm Stamper wrote about the reaction to his original piece and laid out the debtate between those who felt it was wrong for the president to shrug off the question of legalization and those who felt it was politically wise. The most recent piece by Stamper rekindled my thoughts about the previous pieces mentioned above.
Before I go any further, I will note that both sides of the debate Stamper mentions have factual grounding. It is true that the legalization of marijuana (and the larger issue of the Sitzkrieg that is the 'War on Drugs') is a very important issue that deserves serious consideration and not jokes. Dismissal of the pro-legalization side of the argument as a bunch of pot-heads not worthy of serious consideration is a big part of the strategy of the drug warriors. Even if this was not President Obama's intent, his joke mirrors those used by the drug warriors.
President Obama won several red states where voters take a hard law and order line, and he may believe it is politically inexpedient to advocate drug reform too aggressively because of the risk it may pose to those gains. He may very well be right.
Nevertheless, drug reform is too important an issue not to push, regardless of its political expedience. I will say that again, so that my clarity of meaning cannot be mistaken: drug reform is too important an issue not to push.
The so-called 'Drug War' is better characterized as 'The War on Drugs We Don't Like on Behalf of Corporations We Do Like.' That's awfully long to type, so I will just call it the 'War on Some Drugs', though I can't take credit for that phrase. Drug reform, real drug reform, is about a lot more than legalizing medical marijuana at the federal level or even entirely repealing federal marijuana laws. Real drug reform is about improved regulation of prescription drugs, improved enforcement of that regulation, ending the 'War on Some Drugs' entirely (by legalizing presently illegal drugs and legally regulating those in need of such regulation on a case by case basis), and applying a tax and duty policy to drugs (both those presently legal and those presently illegal) across the board. Medical marijuana is a tiny tip of a huge iceberg, and the entire iceberg must be successfully circumnavigated.
The 'War on Some Drugs' was sold to the public as an agressive campaign of law and order against gangsters and thugs who sold drugs to innocents. It has become, instead, a selective war against the poor and minorities justifying massive violations of civil liberties. The people in the actual business of selling drugs are doing better than ever, while their 'victims' (whom the policy was allegedly enacted to defend) are treated as the enemy.
At the turn of the century, it should be noted, cocaine, opiates, and marijuana were all legal. Marijuana was grown throughout rural America, particularly the South. Cocaine was in soft drinks. Morphine and codeine were sold over the counter, and heroin was in toothache pills, throat lozenges, and cough drops. Drug related violence was impossibly low, by today's standards. These drugs were outlawed roughly at the same time as Prohibition was imposed on alcoholic beverages, as part of the same Progressive Era moral reform movement. Prohibition ended, but the restrictions on illegal drugs were not lifted. Initially, as the big business in organized crime was still gambling and prostitution (which had naturally accompanied bootlegging), things went on as normal... until organized crime realized the money that could be tapped in the market for illegal drugs. Then the drug business bloomed as never before.
The public health argument for prohibition of drugs is laughable. Nicotine and alcohol, both legal, are extremely dangerous drugs when used irresponsibly and nicotine may be impossible to use responsibly. Yet neither are illegal. By comparison to nicotine, marijuana and LSD are as safe as aspirin and both are far less addictive. Even addictive and dangerous drugs like heroin and cocaine cannot compete with nicotine for addiction rates and death rates, and the overdose rates for both drugs may be artificially high because prohibition completely removes any possibility of regulation or quality control. Methadone, the preferred method of treatment for opiate addiction, is far MORE addictive than any of the opiates it replaces and far more dangerous to the health of the user. Yet it is used to treat addiction to heroin without a second thought. Most chemical treatment patients end up addicted to methadone for life and risk deadly withdrawal if they try to quit. Legal prescription drugs frequently have addiction potential and harmful side effects on par with heroin and cocaine as well. The 'public health' rationale for the 'War on Some Drugs' is completely incoherent.
The 'law enforcement' argument is worse. If drugs were not illegal, drug related crime would drop. Drug related crime is so high because drug prohibition relegates otherwise law abiding drug users to criminal status and puts the business entirely in the hands of criminals. Pragmatically speaking, the 'War on Some Drugs' creates far more crime than it stops and the majority of the 'criminals' persecuted under the policy are the victims of the drug cartels rather than their leaders.
On a purely philosophical level, the moral hypocrisy of the WoSD is simply impossible to completely communicate. Recreational users of dangerous drugs are persecuted as criminals... unless they are recreational users of alcohol or nicotine. Mandatory minimums for drug offenders frequently carry heavy racial undertones, such as differences in sentencing for possession of powder cocaine and possession of free-base cocaine. Laws against other drugs, such as heroin and methamphetamine, primarily target the poor. Well-to-do abusers of illegal drugs or prescription drugs frequently end up in treatment programs without facing criminal charges.
The pragmatic benefits of taxation and regulation have been argued by others, and I am not going to repeat them here. My fundamental objection to the WoSD is philosophical, though I agree entirely with all the pragmatic arguments.
One of the greatest flaws in the WsOD, however, is the treatment of prescription drugs. Just as recreational drugs, medical drugs are big business. Dangerous, experimental drugs are marketed before they have been fully verified as safe and effective. Multiple drugs are frequently marketed for the same conditions with no other purpose than to sell another product. Corporate advertisements tell us to solve our problems with drugs every day, and some medical conditions (ADD and ADHD come to mind, but are not the end of the story) have arguably been invented in order to justify selling dangerous drugs to 'treat' them. Once upon a time the purpose of drugs was to cure disease and treat pain, but now the purpose of drugs is frequently to manage chronic symptoms without affecting the underyling condition responsible. This is simply corporate drug dealing, no different than selling heroin on the street. Scores of hugely dangerous products are sold legally to people who may or may not benefit from their use every day.
This situation is too insane to be allowed to continue, the only reason it continues is money. People make money off drugs, legal and illegal, and that money would be threatened by the major overhaul our drug policy needs. Thus political expediency crushes real reform at every turn.
It is easy to understand why the president feels it politically inexpedient to challenge the current drug policy, even in as small a step as to respond to a question about the legalization of marijuana, but it is important that agitation on the issue continue. Our current drug policy, medical and criminal, divides America into two: a nation of addicts and a nationed of criminals.
Clearly, rectifying a crisis on that scale justified radical action.