Two days after Barack Obama became President, DEA agents led a raid on a South Lake Tahoe dispensary run by a wheelchair-bound entrepreneur named Ken Estes. They seized about five pounds of cannabis and a few thousands dollars. They arrested no one. “It was a typical rip-and-run” said a friend who had spoken with Estes.
In years past, when dispensaries run by Estes had been closed by law enforcement, activists would tsk-tsk about the looseness of his management style, as if Estes had drawn the heat on himself. This time Ol’ Ken was seen as a brave, tax-paying victim and scorn was directed at the DEA for ignoring Obama’s alleged promise to end such raids. A few verbal militants blamed the new President himself for not seeing to it that his “promise” was kept from the day he took office.
What, if anything, has Obama promised with respect to the marijuana laws? A message posted on the Obama for America website after Nov. 4 disparaged DEA raids on dispensaries, but the syntax is garbled, the objection is to individual patients getting arrested, and the authorship is anonymous and unofficial: “Many states have laws that condone medical marijuana, but the Bush Administration is using federal drug enforcement agents to raid these facilities and arrest seriously ill people. Focusing scarce law enforcement resources on these patients who pose no threat while many violent and highly dangerous drug traffickers are at large makes no sense. Senator Obama will not continue the Bush policy when he is president.”
On the campaign trail when Obama was asked by a Willamette Week reporter, “Would you stop the DEA’s raids on Oregon medical marijuana growers?” he replied, “I would because I think our federal agents have better things to do, like catching criminals and preventing terrorism. The way I want to approach the issue of medical marijuana is to base it on science, and if there is sound science that supports the use of medical marijuana and if it is controlled and prescribed in a way that other medicine is prescribed, then it’s something that I think we should consider.”
In March 2008, also in Oregon (where a primary win would give him the nomination), Obama told Gary Nelson of the Medford Mail Tribune:
“When it comes to medical marijuana, I have more of a practical view than anything else. My attitude is that if it’s an issue of doctors prescribing medical marijuana as a treatment for glaucoma or as a cancer treatment, I think that should be appropriate because there really is no difference between that and a doctor prescribing morphine or anything else.
“I think there are legitimate concerns in not wanting to allow people to grow their own or start setting up mom and pop shops because at that point it becomes fairly difficult to regulate. [Obama must have gotten input from parties that don’t like the way cannabis is produced and distributed in Oregon, California and the other mmj states.]
“Again, I’m not familiar with all the details of the initiative that was passed [in Oregon] and what safeguards there were in place, but I think the basic concept that using medical marijuana in the same way, with the same controls as other drugs prescribed by doctors, I think that’s entirely appropriate…
“I would not punish doctors if it’s prescribed in a way that is appropriate. That may require some changes in federal law. I will tell you that — I mean I want to be honest with you±whether I want to use a whole lot of political capital on that issue when we’re trying to get health care passed or end the war in Iraq, the likelihood of that being real high on my list is not likely… What I’m not going to be doing is using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue simply because I want folks to be investigating violent crimes and potential terrorism. We’ve got a lot of things for our law enforcement officers to deal with.”
Two Misleading Assumptions
Obama’s comment about using his political capital to achieve more important goals was said in a tone and accompanied by a smile that conveyed, “This is a reality that you and I both understand…” But it’s a self-fulfilling reality that involves two misleading assumptions. You and I and Barack Obama and Nelson of the Mail-Tribune know that the polls consistently show 75-80% of the American people wanting the marijuana laws to allow medical use. Relatively few voters woud be alienated if the new President directed the DEA to respect the relevant state laws –or if his Attorney General classified marijuana as something other than a Schedule-1 drug. Those steps would not be unpopular with the masses and taking them would only cost Obama “political capital” if he’s defining it as something other than “popular support.” So he must be referring to his political capital vis-à-vis the corporate elites and a Congress that does their bidding.
And why assume ending marijuana prohibition would be a less significant political achievement than reforming the healthcare system or getting US troops out of Iraq? Looking back at the changes effected in 1932, ending alcohol prohibition doesn’t seem trivial compared to the public works projects and economic reforms instituted by FDR in response to the depression.
If and when impediments to medical marijuana use are removed and the American people begin to avail themselves of it en masse, the pharmaceutical manufacturers will lose a third or more of their sales.
This unspoken consequence of legalizing medical marijuana is a certainty. Want proof? Doctors who have monitored cannabis use by hundreds of thousands of patients in California and Oregon can document a consistent pattern of decreased use of pharmaceuticals –a 50% reduction of opioid use, for example. Recall that the present depression was precipitated by a small drop in housing prices. The demise of Big Pharma would, in and of itself, impel healthcare reform.
Our prevailing “healthcare system” has been configured to maximize drug-company profits, not the well-being of the American people.
Ken Estes said it perfectly to KTVU’s Patti Lee, who did a piece about the raid that shut him down: “I know Obama’s got really serious issues. This is actually one of the serious issues…” The Jan. 22 raid in South Lake Tahoe might have been averted if drug-policy reform lobbyists in Washington had clout with Obama’s transition team. They didn’t. George Soros and Peter Lewis paid –millions in campaign contributions– but their operatives didn’t get to “play…” Whether the feds will continue to raid California growers and distributors should be clarified when a new DEA Administrator is nominated by Attorney General Eric Holder and appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee chaired by Pat Leahy of Vermont.
Desperately Seeking Drug Czar
Former Biden aide Chris Putala —a former boyfriend of Anne Coulter— is one of two transition team members in charge of finding a new director for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, i.e., drug czar. On Inauguration Day the White House quietly named an acting interim director — Ed Jurith, who has been ONDCP’s chief counsel since 1994. Jurith served as placeholder czar in the year-long interregnum between Gen. Barry McCaffrey and John Walters. In the 1980s Jurith helped draft the Anti-Drug Abuse Acts creating the ONDCP (and mandatory minimums, and the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, among other cruel provisions). Sen. Joe Biden sponsored legislation creating the Acts.
The other transition teamer involved in the drug czar search is Dr. Don Vereen, a former ONDCP functionary who has expressed disdain for doctors who approve cannabis use.
Nor one of the reform lobbies –not NORML, Americans for Safe Access, the Drug Policy Alliance, or the Marijuana Policy Project— has called for abolishing the Drug Czar’s office and putting drug policy under the Surgeon General, where it belongs. Their honchos will all say privately that they agree, of course, that the Drug Czar’s office has done nothing but spread Prohibitionist propaganda from its inception. But calling for its abolition would cost them their coveted –and illusory—“seat at the table.”
FRED GARDNER edits O’Shaughnessy’s, a pro-cannabis doctors journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.