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by Philip Smith
Two states have already legalized marijuana, bills to do the same have been or will be filed in a half-dozen more this year, a federal bill to repeal pot prohibition has also been introduced, legalization initiatives aimed at 2014 or 2016 are already being plotted, and public opinion polls are showing support for marijuana legalization edging into majority territory. The opposition is started to get worried.
And it is moving to blunt the legalization trend. While official Washington has so far remained largely silent in the face of the fact of legalization in two states and the threat of it in more in the near future, special interests threatened by the end of marijuana prohibition and self-appointed anti-pot crusaders are starting to stage a pushback. While it is tempting to dismiss the crusaders as being on the wrong side of history, reform advocates are wary of their advocacy and say the good guys need to step up their game.
Project SAM (Smart About Marijuana), the recently formed brainchild of former Congressman-with-addiction-issues Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) and former Office of National Drug Control Policy staffer Kevin Sabet, last week authored a letter to US Attorney General Eric Holder calling on him to stand firm against marijuana legalization.
Its co-signers include a veritable cavalcade of beneficiaries of government drug spending, among them the federally-funded Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, the National Narcotics Officers Association Coalition, and the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP). Other signers are a Colorado pediatric physicians’ group and Smart Colorado, “a broad-based alliance of concerned public health officials,” which is funded almost entirely by Mel and Betty Sembler, long-time drug warriors notorious for having operated abusive treatment programs for teens in the 1990s.
“We are writing to you to enforce the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) in Colorado and Washington with respect to recent ballot measures legalizing marijuana,” wrote Kennedy and the gang. “These state laws would severely threaten public health and safety goals, expressly contradict the President’s National Drug Control Strategy, make it impossible to comply with federal regulations, and present an obstacle to the achievement of Congress’ discernible objectives to prohibit the use, sale, manufacture, and distribution of marijuana. We urge you to restate marijuana is illegal.”
The marijuana legalization laws in Washington and Colorado “violate both the intent of Congress in enacting the CSA and the letter of the law,” the letter continued. “The Department of Justice and Congress have determined through the CSA that marijuana is a Schedule I drug and as such growing, distributing, and possessing marijuana in any capacity, save a federal research program, is in ‘violation of federal law regardless of state laws permitting such activities.’”
Project SAM advocates prevention and drug treatment for marijuana users and wants to avoid stigmatizing them, but still wants marijuana to be illegal.
“There is an arrest and prosecution industry in this country that depends on marijuana remaining illegal to maintain their budgets and stay in business,” retorted Mason Tvert, one of the key organizers of the Colorado initiative and now a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project. “As Project SAM has said, we need to be focusing our attention on providing treatment to those who need it, but unfortunately their stance on marijuana would waste treatment resources on people who don’t. These groups talk about teens using marijuana, and if their true goal was preventing teen marijuana use, we would gladly join them, but their real goal is to keep marijuana illegal, and that doesn’t benefit teens or anyone else… but themselves.”
For one of the Project SAM signatories, signing on to somebody else’s letter wasn’t enough. The NADCP Monday released its own position statement against legalizing marijuana, saying “every dangerous and addictive drug was once believed to be safe and medicinal.”
NADCP “unequivocally stands against the legalization of marijuana and the use of smoked marijuana as medicine,” the group said. Society need not fall for the “false choice” of legalization or incarceration when it can find a third way through the “curative effects of drug courts and dozens of other treatment programs.”
“Drug court is the equivalent of purgatory in the Catholic theology,” commented Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “If you comport with their demands and accept your moral turpitude, they may let you ascend. But if you fail the drug test or don’t show proper deference to the system, you will not only be stuck in purgatory, but may pushed down into the bowels of hell,” the veteran activist said.
“We get calls all the time from people facing this Hobbesian choice of drug courts or traditional courts, and we have to warn them that, unlike the early 1990s, when they looked like a good alternative to incarceration, we have seen so many cases where individuals face far worse penalties, fines, and incarceration in drug court than if they took the worst plea bargain in regular court. Drug court pleaders belong in the category of special interests who clearly benefit — if not exist wholly — because of this government prohibition.”
Reformers should not take this new opposition lightly, some reformers say.
“While these groups are completely dependent on federal government anti-drug money and can be discounted as fighting to protect their own rice bowls, it would be a naïve and arrogant mistake to ignore them,” said Eric Sterling, executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. “Kevin Sabet is an energetic guy, and these groups have lots of taxpayer money to spend on this. They will mobilize in other states, and they have the ability to get the ear of the attorney general and others.”
Similarly, said Sterling, “to a lay person, the NADCP statement is an impressive statement,” even though policy and other experts may see their claims as overstated.
“People in reform should be concerned about a reaction,” he said. “It is certain that these documents represent products being developed by a concerted movement to turn back the tide. The opposition is first out of the box on this,” Sterling warned as he wondered aloud what the reform movement is doing to counter the counter-revolution.
“I was told in November that folks at Justice were completely blindsided by the victories in Colorado and Washington,” he said. “What written correspondence to Holder can we point to about what they should do? I know there have been some informal conversations between state officials and the attorney general, but there is nothing in writing that both lays out a plea and a case for accommodating state laws.”
That reflects a broader problem of lack of aggressiveness within the reform movement, he said.
“On one level, the reform movement is not being proactive,” Sterling argued. “It’s one thing to get an initiative passed, and we’ve demonstrated a high degree of competence at that, but we haven’t seen that same sort of competence when it comes to Washington. It’s a much more complex and tricky problem to mobilize a majority of the House or Senate, and there has not been a well-organized effort on a sustained basis to get Congress to weigh in. It’s amazing to me that so far after 1996, no senator has ever introduced a bill to allow their state to have a medical marijuana program free from federal interference. There are now 36 senators from 18 medical marijuana states, and not one of them has ever introduced a bill. That’s an amazing failure to organize by our movement.”
The movement — especially that part of it with deep pockets — needs to step up, Sterling said.
“I’m not aware that any of our movement organizations have a strategy for getting the American Bar Association or other high-profile groups to take a position on marijuana enforcement after the passage of the initiatives,” he said. “Those kinds of campaigns need to be thought about and have people assigned to do them. I haven’t done that either, but I’m not a leader of any of the ‘angel organizations’ that do this work.”
While the reform movement builds itself, it can still attack the foe, St. Pierre said.
The opposition is actively pushing back now. Reformers are working quietly with state officials on implementation of regulation, but they can’t forget that Washington is where some crucial decisions get made. Project SAM and its allies certainly haven’t.