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Reps Urge New Direction with Drug Czar Pick

Five Democratic members of Congress are calling on President Obama to use the nomination of a new drug czar as an opportunity to take a big step toward fully embracing a drug policy based on science, reason, and facts. The five representatives made their call in a letter sent to the White House Thursday.

The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (the drug czar's office) is charged with advising the president on drug control issues, setting federal drug control policy, and producing an annual report on national drug control strategy. Its current head, former Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowske, is resigning to take on the position of commissioner of Customs and Border Protection.

"We commend you and your Administration on the recent steps you have taken to pursue smarter sentencing and policies that respect state laws regarding marijuana," the congressmen wrote. "We urge you to nominate a new director of ONDCP who will develop policies based on science rather than ideology and move away from the failed policy of criminalizing marijuana. The new director should promote fact-based education and use medical science and behavioral research to end the questionable practice of equating marijuana with dangerous drugs like heroin, crack, and methamphetamine."

The signatories are US Representatives Steve Cohen (D-TN), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Sam Farr (D-CA), Mark Pocan (D-WI), and Jared Polis (D-CO).

The congressmen noted that the position of drug czar has historically been filled by individuals with law enforcement backgrounds who have viewed drug policy as a matter of criminal enforcement rather than as a matter of public health -- regardless of the medical science and public research available. That needs to change, they said.

"We ask that you break from this tradition and nominate someone with a background in science," the letter said. "Particularly in light of the rapidly growing public support for marijuana legalization and broader drug policy reform, it would be a mistake for you to appoint someone who merely continues to prosecute the failed war on drugs."

Instead, they wrote, "the new director of ONDCP should promote scientific research into the benefits and risks of marijuana legalization and be guided by the results of those findings. He or she should take note of the growing movement at the state level to make marijuana legal for medical or personal use and help shape national policies based on the lessons learned in those states. At a minimum the new director should urge strict adherence to the recent DOJ guidelines regarding criminal enforcement in those states."

It has been nearly six weeks since Kerlikowske's pending resignation was announced, but there has so far been little hint of who the White House has in mind to replace him. The congressmen are suggesting that it's time to break the mold and head in a new direction.

Washington, DC
United States

DEA Using Massive AT&T Phone Records Database

For at least six years, the DEA has had access to a massive AT&T database of phone call records dating back to 1987, the New York Times reported Sunday. According to the report, the DEA pays AT&T to place company employees in DEA offices around the country, where they supply DEA agents with phone data in compliance with federal subpoenas.

The program, known as the Hemisphere Project, is not limited to AT&T calls. It also covers data for any carrier using an AT&T switch and picks up 4 billion calls a day, according to the Times.

It only came to light because a Washington peace activist filed a FOIA lawsuit seeking information from West Coast law enforcement agencies, and one of them included training slides from the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The slides, which included a power point presentation, were marked "law enforcement sensitive."

They revealed not only the existence of the Hemisphere Project, but also efforts to keep it secret.

"All requestors are instructed to never refer to Hemisphere in any official document," one slide said.

The exposure of Hemisphere comes at a time when concern over government surveillance technologies is high, as revelations from former NSA employee Edward Snowden and his interlocutors about the extent of spying continue to appear on a regular basis. While NSA spying is ostensibly directed at foreign terrorists, it has also provided surveillance information to the DEA for use not in terrorism investigations, but in criminal ones.

Federal officials told the Times that the Hemisphere Project was no big deal, saying it has been useful in finding drug dealers who frequently discard cell phones and it uses investigative techniques that have been employed for decades and present no new privacy issues.

Privacy and civil liberties advocates begged to differ.

The Hemisphere Project "certainly raises profound privacy concerns," ACLU deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer told the Times. "I'd speculate that one reason for the secrecy of the program is that it would be very hard to justify it to the public or the courts," he said. And while he acknowledged that the database remained in AT&T's possession, "the integration of government agents into the process means there are serious Fourth Amendment concerns."

Senator Leahy Calls Judiciary Hearing on Federal Marijuana Policy [FEATURE]

US Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced Monday that he would hold a hearing next month on the Justice Department's response to marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington and legal medical marijuana in 20 states and the District of Columbia. The hearing is set for September 10.

Patrick Leahy (senate.gov)
Leahy has invited Attorney General Eric Holder and Deputy Attorney General James Cole to testify before the committee and help clarify the conflicts between state and federal law, as well as the federal response. Cole is the author of the 2011 Cole memo giving federal prosecutors the green light to go after medical marijuana providers in states where it is not tightly regulated.

"It is important, especially at a time of budget constraints, to determine whether it is the best use of federal resources to prosecute the personal or medicinal use of marijuana in states that have made such consumption legal," Leahy said in a statement Monday. "I believe that these state laws should be respected. At a minimum, there should be guidance about enforcement from the federal government."

After Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana last November, Leahy sent a letter to the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy asking that the Obama administration make public its position on the matter. Although Holder said in February that a Justice Department response would be coming "relatively soon," it still hasn't appeared.

State officials in Colorado and Washington said last week that they thought the Justice Department had given them "tacit approval" to move forward with their plans to implement marijuana regulation, taxation, and legalization. Leahy, who has said he supports the efforts in those two states, would like to get something more definitive from the Justice Department.

In the meantime, while the feds are silent on how they will deal with legalization, federal prosecutors and the DEA have kept up the pressure on medical marijuana producers and distributors. Since the Cole memo came out two years ago, hundreds of dispensaries have been raided and hundreds more subjected to federal "threat letters." While actual prosecutions have been more rare, the result has been a reduction in access to medical marijuana for patients in areas where dispensaries have been forced out of business.

Leahy isn't the only one in Congress who is interested in federal marijuana policy. At least seven bills have been filed, most with bipartisan sponsorship, addressing federal marijuana policy. They range from bills to legalize hemp and marijuana to bills that would prevent the use of the IRS to crack down on medical marijuana dispensaries.

Holder won kudos from many drug reformers earlier this month when he announced his support for further sentencing reforms, but medical marijuana and marijuana legalization advocates were disappointed that he did not address the tension and contradictions between state and federal marijuana policies. Now, it appears that Leahy is going to force the issue, and marijuana reform advocates couldn't be more pleased.

"This is an important development for all sorts of reasons -- not least because the Senate has been so remarkably passive on marijuana issues even as twenty states have legalized medical marijuana and two have legalized it more broadly. I am delighted that Senator Leahy now seems ready to provide much needed leadership on this issue," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

"The ballot initiatives in Washington and Colorado made history not so much because they legalized possession of small amounts of marijuana but because they mandated that state governments regulate and tax what had previously been illicit markets," Nadelmann continued. "Ending marijuana prohibition not just in the states but also nationally is going to require the sort of leadership that Senator Leahy is now providing. Now is the time for his colleagues to stand up as well in defense of responsible state regulation of marijuana."

"Two states have made marijuana legal for adult use and are establishing regulated systems of production and distribution. Twenty states plus our nation's capital have made it legal for medical use. By failing to recognize the decisions of voters and legislators in those states, current federal law is undermining their ability to implement and enforce those laws," said Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project.

"Marijuana prohibition's days are numbered, and everyone in Washington knows that," Riffle continued. "It's time for Congress to stop ignoring the issue and develop a policy that allows states to adopt the most efficient and effective marijuana laws possible. We need to put the 'reefer madness' policies of the 1930s behind us and adopt an evidence-based approach for the 21st Century."

"We're still waiting for the administration to announce its response to the marijuana legalization laws in Colorado and Washington, a policy that the attorney general has been saying is coming 'relatively soon' since December," said Tom Angell, head of Marijuana Majority. "If the administration is serious about using law enforcement resources in a smarter way, it should be a no-brainer to strongly direct federal prosecutors to respect the majority of voters by allowing these groundbreaking state laws to be implemented without interference."

It ought to be an interesting, and perhaps, historic hearing. It's two weeks away.

Washington, DC
United States

GAO Says ONCDP Not Achieving Drug Goals So Far

Just a day after the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) released its latest annual national drug control strategy, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a report finding that ONDCP has fallen well short of goals enunciated in its 2010 national drug strategy.

In the report, Office of National Drug Control Policy: Office Could Better Identify Opportunities to Increase Program Coordination, GAO noted that ONDCP and the federal government "have not made progress toward achieving most of the goals articulated in the 2010 National Drug Control Strategy." In some areas, including reducing teen drug use, reducing drug overdose deaths, and reducing HIV infections from injection drug use, GAO found, ONDCP was not only not making progress, but sometimes the numbers were moving in the opposite direction.

For instance, under the broader goal of "curtailing illicit drug consumption in America," ONDCP had set use reduction goals to be achieved by 2015. It sought to reduce last month drug use by teens by 15%, but has achieved no movement. Similarly, it sought a 15% reduction in past month use by young adults, but has achieved no movement. It also sought to reduce lifetime use of drugs, alcohol, and tobacco by 8th graders by 15%, and was making progress toward its goal with alcohol and tobacco, but not with illegal drugs.

Likewise, under ONDCP's broad goal of "improving the public health and public safety of the American people by reducing the consequences of drug use," ONDCP identified goals of reducing overdose deaths, drug-related hospital emergency room visits, and drug-related HIV infections by 15% by 2015, but showed "movement away from goal" between 2010 and 2012.

Drug czar Gil Kerlikowske is talking up a "21st Century Approach" to drug use with a heavy emphasis on treatment and prevention, but the latest national drug budget still allocates 58% of funding to law enforcement and interdiction. And those remaining funds for treatment and prevention are "fragmented" across 15 federal agencies, with much overlapping. GAO reviewed 76 federal drug treatment and prevention programs and found 59 of them overlapped.

GAO did note that while ONDCP was not showing progress in most of its goals, it had implemented 107 of the 112 "action items" contemplated to meet those goals. The auditors noted that "ONDCP officials stated that implementing these action items is necessary, but may not be sufficient to achieve Strategy goals."

Washington, DC
United States

White House 2013 National Drug Strategy Released

The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) released its 2013 National Drug Control Strategy Wednesday. The strategy is being billed as a "21st Century Approach" to drug use and trafficking, but despite some rhetorical softening maintains the US hard-line approach to the issue.

"The president has outlined his vision of an America built to last -- where an educated, skilled workforce has the knowledge, energy and expertise to compete in the global marketplace. Yet -- for far too many Americans -- that vision is limited by drug use, which not only diminishes the potential of the individual, but jeopardizes families, communities and neighborhoods," ONDCP wrote on a blog post announcing the strategy's release and touting reductions in cocaine and prescription drug abuse as progress made.

"Today we are releasing a science-driven plan for drug policy reform in America to build upon this progress," ONDCP continued. "This 21st century drug policy outlines a series of evidence-based reforms that treat our nation's drug problem as a public health issue, not just a criminal justice issue. This policy underscores what we all know to be true: we cannot arrest or incarcerate our way out of the drug problem."

The strategy emphasizes treatment and prevention, but despite the rhetoric, the Fiscal Year 2014 federal drug budget it accompanies continues to be imbalanced, with 58% of federal anti-drug spending directed at law enforcement and interdiction efforts. That figure does mark a decline from previous years, but only a marginal one.

And even its emphasis on treatment also includes punitive criminal justice elements, such as its embrace of the drug court system, where drug-addicted people are subjected to legal sanctions for such addiction-related behaviors as failing a drug test or missing an appointment. That has some drug reformers calling foul.

"The administration says drug use is a health issue but then advocates for policies that put people in the criminal justice system," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Until the drug czar says it is time to stop arresting people for drug use, he is not treating drug use as a health issue no matter what he says. I know of no other health issue in which people are thrown in jail if they don't get better."

While much of the strategy is little more than the same old same old, the strategy does call for expanded access to naloxone, a low-cost antidote that can reverse the effects of opioid overdoses. That is in response to the rapid growth in prescription drug overdose deaths in recent years.

"Director Kerlikowske should be applauded for taking steps to reduce drug overdose fatalities, but he's not doing much to reduce drug arrests or the many other problems associated with treating drug use through the criminal justice system," said Piper.

But while the drug strategy shows flexibility in its efforts to deal with fatal drug overdoses, it maintains a staunch opposition to marijuana reform and includes attacking outdoor and indoor marijuana cultivation as one of its key goals.

"The administration's continued opposition to marijuana law reform shows they're not serious about reforming US drug policy," said Piper. "At the very least they should stop getting in the way of states that are trying to improve public health and safety by regulating marijuana like alcohol."

Washington, DC
United States

Modest Changes in Obama's FY 2014 Drug Budget

The Obama administration released its Fiscal Year 2014 budget proposal Wednesday, including its 2014 federal drug budget. Pundits and politicians on both sides of the aisle quickly pronounced the Obama budget dead on arrival, but it does provide both a window into administration thinking on drug policy and a starting point for negotiations.

Obama's 2014 drug budget came out Wednesday. (whitehouse.gov)
There's not much new. The historic 2:1 ratio between law enforcement and interdiction spending and treatment and prevention spending, representing what critics have long called an over-reliance on enforcement, is slightly attenuated. The Obama 2014 drug budget allocates 58% of spending to enforcement vs. 42% to treatment and prevention. It is a slight improvement over the FY 2013 drug budget, where the figures were 62% and 38% -- starting to climb away from 2:1, if it continues, but not dramatically.

In a post on its web site, the Office of National Drug Control Policy's Rafael Lemaitre writes that treatment and prevention spending now tops domestic law enforcement spending, and "that's what a 21st Century approach to drug policy looks like," but that post does not include interdiction and international drug enforcement spending. When those are included, the Obama drug budget is clearly weighted on the side of law enforcement -- very much what a late 20th Century drug policy looked like.

Still, the budget calls for an 18% increase in treatment funding, and cuts in interdiction and international enforcement funding, as welling as reducing funding for the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program, which generates ever more drug arrests working with state and local drug task forces. But spending for both the DEA and Bureau of Prisons is going up, and that raised the hackles of one drug reform activist.

"The administration deserves some credit for moving this ratio slightly in the right direction over the years, but a drug control budget that increases funding for the DEA and the Bureau of Prisons is simply not the kind of strategy we need in the 21st Century," said Tom Angell, spokesman for the Marijuana Majority. "At a time when a majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana, and states are moving to end prohibition, this president should be spending less of our money paying narcs to send people to prison, not more. If, as administration officials say, 'we can't arrest our way out of the drug problem,' then why are they continuing to devote so many resources to arresting people for drug problems?"

The administration also deserves "some credit" for reducing HIDTA funding, said Angell, but "still $193 million for the program is $193 million more than should be used to arrest people for drugs in the 21st Century."

US, International Drug Warriors Attack State Marijuana Legalization [FEATURE]

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.

"S.O.S." web site celebrates defeat of Hawaii marijuana legalization bill
Legalization supporters rejected the attacks, comparing the ex-DEA chiefs to Prohibition agents seeking to justify their efforts and dismissing the global anti-drug bureaucrats as largely irrelevant.

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...

Legalization Foes Come Out Swinging Against Marijuana [FEATURE]

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.

Anti-prohibitionists aren't the only ones targeting Congress.
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.

Drug Czar Cites "Serious National Conversation" About Marijuana

Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) head Gil Kerlikowske said Tuesday that the country is "in the midst of a serious national conversation about marijuana" -- an at least rhetorical advance from his 2009 position that marijuana legalization is "not in the president's vocabulary and not in mine."

Gil Kerlikowske
Kerlikowske's terse comments on the topic came in response to three marijuana legalization petitions posted on the White House's We the People web site, which promises to respond to any petition that garners more than 25,000 signatures. The three had a combined signature total of more than 173,000.

But they also come in a political context altered by last November's elections, when two states, Colorado and Washington, easily approved marijuana legalization initiatives. The use and possession of small amounts of marijuana by adults over 21 is now legal in both states, and officials in both are now grappling with the task of coming up with and implementing regulations for legal marijuana commerce. The federal government has yet to respond substantively as to whether or not it will seek to impede that process.

"Coming out of the recent election, it is clear that we're in the midst of a serious national conversation about marijuana," said Kerliwowske. "At President Obama's request, the Justice Department is reviewing the legalization initiatives passed in Colorado and Washington, given differences between state and federal law."

That was the extent of Kerlikowske's response, except for referring readers to a recent Barbara Walters interview with President Obama in which he said he wasn't ready "to go that far" when it came to the topic of pot legalization, but added that "we're going to need to have is a conversation about how do you reconcile a federal law that still says marijuana is a federal offense and state laws that say that it's legal."

The rhetorical shift was "pretty significant," said Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority, a recently-formed group calling for decriminalization or legalization.

"I guess it makes a difference when marijuana legalization gets more votes than your boss does in an important swing state, as happened in Colorado this last election," Angell said. "From 'legalization is not in my vocabulary and it's not in the president's,' as Gil Kerlikowske often used to say, to 'it is clear that we're in the midst of a serious national conversation about marijuana' is a pretty stark shift."

Actions speak louder than words, Angell said, but still…

"Of course, what really matters is to what extent the administration actually shifts enforcement priorities and budgets, but I sure do like hearing the US drug czar acknowledge the fact that marijuana legalization is a mainstream discussion that is happening whether he likes it or not."

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Senate Judiciary Committee to Hold Hearings on Marijuana Policy

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said in a statement last Thursday that he intends to hold a hearing seeking information about how the Obama administration plans to respond to the successful marijuana legalization initiatives in Colorado and Washington. Leahy said he expects to hold the hearing when Congress reconvenes early next year.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (leahy.senate.gov)
Leahy also released a letter he sent earlier this month to Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) asking him what recommendations the agency will make to the Justice Department and how, given the fiscal constraints the administration faces, it intends to use federal resources in light of the legalization votes in Colorado and Washington. The veteran Vermont lawmaker also asked Kerlikowske what assurances the administration can give to state officials responsible for the licensing of marijuana retailers to ensure they will face no criminal penalties for carrying out their duties under those state laws.

"The Senate Judiciary Committee has a significant interest in the effect of these developments on federal drug control policy," Leahy wrote. "Legislative options exist to resolve the differences between federal and state law in this area and end the uncertainty that residents of Colorado and Washington now face. In order to give these options full consideration, the committee needs to understand how the administration intends to respond to the decision of the voters in Colorado and Washington.  I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this matter."

The Obama administration has yet to formally respond to the legalization votes, but Attorney General Eric Holder said last Wednesday the Justice Department will announce "relatively soon" where it stands on federal enforcement of the pot laws in the two states.

"There is a tension between federal law and these state laws,” Holder said in response to questions after a speech in Boston. "I would expect the policy pronouncement that we’re going to make will be done relatively soon."

A series of public opinion polls this month have found little public support for federal interference with state marijuana laws in states where it is legal, with majorities calling for the feds to keep out of the way. Support for federal non-interference is strongest among key Obama constituencies, including Democrats, independents, and young voters.

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