As the nation awaits the Obama administration's response to marijuana legalization votes in Colorado and Washington, Tuesday saw a two-pronged attack on the whole notion. On the one hand, former drug czars and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) heads lined up to urge the administration to act now to strangle legalization in its crib, while on the other, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) warned that allowing states to legalize would violate international drug control treaties.
In a joint letter under the auspices of the anti-drug reform group Save Our Society From Drugs, eight former heads of the DEA and four former heads of the Office of National Drug Control Policy urged the federal government to act now to nullify the votes in Colorado and Washington. The same group similarly called on Attorney General Holder to speak out against those state initiatives last September, but he failed to do so.
Holder, who said last week his decision will be "coming soon," was scheduled to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday. The retired drug fighters urged senators to press him on the issue.
Holder's actual appearance, though, was anticlimactic. He told the committee only that he hoped, again, to be able to announce a policy "relatively soon."
That prompted committee chair Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) to hand out some advice of his own. "If you're going to be -- because of budget cuts -- prioritizing matters, I would suggest there are more serious things than minor possession of marijuana, but it's a personal view," Leahy told Holder, adding that more states were sure to follow in Colorado's and Montana's footsteps.
That's not what the drug warriors were telling Holder.
"We, the undersigned, strongly support the continued enforcement of federal law prohibiting the cultivation, distribution, sale, possession, and use of marijuana -- a dangerous and addictive drug which already has severe harmful effects on American society," they wrote. "We also respectfully request your committee at its March 6 hearing to encourage Attorney General Eric Holder to adhere to long-standing federal law and policy in this regard, and to vigorously enforce the Controlled Substances Act (CSA)."
The signatories suggested that senators ask Holder is he still believed in the Supremacy Clause when it comes to conflicts between state and federal law and why he isn't enforcing the Controlled Substances Act in Colorado and Washington. They also suggested asking him "what is being done about our international drug treaty obligations," noting that they require the federal government to enforce marijuana prohibition.
And speaking of international drug treaty obligations, the INCB, which is charged with ensuring that countries live up to them, also criticized marijuana legalization as it issued its 2012 Annual Report.
Noting the popular votes in favor of legalization in Colorado and Washington, INCB reiterated that "the legalization of cannabis for non-medical and non-scientific purposes would be in contravention to the provisions of the 1961 Convention as amended by the 1972 Protocol."
The INCB also took a shot at medical marijuana, noting that "the control requirements that have been adopted in the 17 states in question and in the District of Columbia under the 'medical' cannabis schemes fall short of the requirements set forth in articles 23 and 28 of the 1961 Convention as amended by the 1972 Protocol."
And, also expressing concerns about decriminalization moves, INCB "requests that the government of the United States take effective measures to ensure the implementation of all control measures for cannabis plants and cannabis, as required under the 1961 Convention, in all states and territories falling within its legislative authority."
The two-pronged attack excited a quick response from drug reform groups and at least one Democratic congressman.
"As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once observed, states are the laboratories of democracy. The federal government should concentrate on shutting down meth labs -- not the laboratories of democracy. The people of Colorado and Washington voted to implement these laws, and the federal government should respect their will. States have a right to determine their own possession laws," said Rep. Steven Cohen (D-TN) in a Tuesday statement.
"If the people of Colorado and Washington want to legalize small amounts of marijuana, that is their decision. It is arrogant of these former DEA chiefs to encourage the President to nullify these laws," Cohen continued. "The fact that these former DEA chiefs are so focused on marijuana possession is why we have lost the war on drugs. The war should be on heroin, meth, crack, cocaine and unauthorized use of prescription drugs -- not marijuana possession."
[Ed: We don't think war on those other drugs is a good thing either -- to the extent at least that "war" means arresting and incarcerating people. Not that we want underground meth labs all over the place. But meth is going to be supplied by someone in some way, despite enforcement efforts, so long as there are people who want to use it. We're losing the "war on drugs" because it is prohibition based, and prohibition doesn't work. The government's focus on marijuana enforcement only highlights the sheer senseless of it all. -DB]
"The former DEA chiefs' statement can best be seen as a self-interested plea to validate the costly and failed policies they championed but that Americans are now rejecting at the ballot box," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "They obviously find it hard to admit that -- at least with respect to marijuana -- their legacy will be much the same as a previous generation of agents who once worked for the federal Bureau of Prohibition enforcing the nation’s alcohol prohibition laws."
"The war on drugs has been a failure by every measure," said Neill Franklin, the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. "After more than a trillion dollars spent over the last forty years, we have nothing to show for it except more violence on our streets, the fracturing of community trust in the police and overflowing prison populations. Still, use has not significantly declined. It's unfortunate the DEA heads can't admit this failure. As someone who gave three decades of his life fighting this 'war' on the ground, I can tell you that from that perspective, this policy was dead on arrival."
"It is not surprising that these ex-heads of the marijuana prohibition industry are taking action to maintain the policies that kept them and their colleagues in business for so long," said Mason Tvert, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project and an official proponent of the Colorado initiative. "Their desire to keep marijuana sales in an underground market favors the drug cartels, whereas the laws approved in Colorado and Washington favor legitimate, tax-paying businesses. Marijuana prohibition has failed, and voters are ready to move on and adopt a more sensible approach. It's time for these former marijuana prohibitionists to move on too."
As for INCB, it essentially plays the role of toothless nag, said Eric Sterling, the executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. It is mandated by the United Nations to report on adherence to global anti-drug treaties, but has only the power to hector, not to enforce.
"The INCB has no power other than to issue reports," he said. "It can't issue indictments, it can't call for a resolution in some other body to condemn a nation. It's strictly hortatory, and for many years, it's bordered on the preposterous in the condemnations it's made. The INCB thinks that nations ought to suppress music or motion pictures or books that 'send the wrong message' about drugs. In that sense, it is completely out of step with Western Civilization. They would reject art and music and probably science if it were contrary to their abstinence focus on drug use."
Not only is the INCB relatively powerless, it is largely irrelevant, Sterling said.
"In our American drug policy, they have only negligible influence," he said. "I don't think that in any state capital, the INCB's comments carry any political weight. I don't think in most journals of opinion, their observations are important. Whether their comments have significance in other countries would be harder for me to assess. I tend to believe they are not that important," he said.
"Most people don't even know what it is or what its power is or what it said, including most members of Congress and their staffs," Sterling continued. "The INCB is obscure. Maybe some former DEA administrators might want to refer to them in a press release, but nobody else is going to pay any attention."
The forces of opposition to marijuana legalization are lining up to put pressure on the Obama administration. It shouldn't listen to them, said DPA's Nadelmann.
"President Obama and Attorney General Holder really need to allow Washington and Colorado officials to implement the new laws in ways that protect public safety and health while respecting the will of those states’ voters," he said. "At this point, insisting on blind obeisance to strict interpretation of federal drug laws will only serve the interests of criminals who want to keep this industry underground and law enforcement officials who want to justify their legacy."
And the wait for clarity from Washington continues...