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The Drug Czar: Harm Reductionists, Treatment and Recovery Advocates Come Down on Different Sides of Rumored Ramstad Nomination

Former Minnesota congressman, self-acknowledged recovered alcoholic, and treatment and recovery advocate Jim Ramstad is widely rumored to be in the running for head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office), and he is garnering both support and opposition from within the drug reform community, broadly defined.

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Jim Ramstad
It may all be for naught. Ramstad himself has asked the Obama transition team to consider him to head SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a post where his appointment would arguably be less controversial. And President Bush's last-minute appointment Monday of current acting ONDCP deputy director Patrick Ward to replace outgoing drug czar John Walters only muddies the waters further.

While Ramstad has serious credentials on treatment and recovery, his opposition to needle exchange programs spurred drug policy analyst and author Maia Szalavitz to oppose his nomination in an article in the Huffington Post. "Ramstad may be a drug warrior in recovering person's clothing," she wrote, noting that he also opposes medical marijuana.

"While Ramstad has opposed some interdiction efforts and called for more treatment funding, someone who doesn't even believe that addicts have a right to life if they aren't in treatment is not the kind of recovering person that I want representing me as drug czar," Szalavitz, a former injection drug user herself, continued. "That's not change, President Obama -- that's more of the same. Don't make the mistake that Bill Clinton did and install a drug czar who will ignore science and push dogma. While it's great to have a recovering person as an example, just having a disease and talking with others who've recovered the same way you did does not make you an expert. We need someone who knows the science, recognizes that there are many paths to recovery -- and understands that dead addicts can't recover."

Szalavitz wasn't the only alarmed harm reductionist. Psychologist Andrew Tatarsky authored an open letter signed by more than 450 substance use and mental health treatment professionals warning that both SAMHSA and the drug czar's office need leadership that "supports evidence-based policies and that will make decisions based on science, not politics or ideology" and "we have reason to believe that Congressman Ramstad is not that person." In addition to Ramstad's opposition to harm reduction measures, Tatarsky noted that throughout his congressional tenure, Ramstad had failed to take any action on sentencing reform.

A Ramstad nomination also drew concern from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), which noted in a blog post that Ramstad had voted against medical marijuana at every opportunity, voted against needle exchange, and had been appointed to the board of directors of Joe Califano's anti-drug reform propaganda organization, the National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA).

But while drug reformers and advocates of science-based policies raised concerns, parts of the treatment community are supporting Ramstad. In a January 11 letter to the Obama transition team, the treatment advocacy organization Faces and Voices of Recovery, a stalwart in many drug policy reform efforts, supported the Ramstad nomination.

"Clearly, the appointment of a person in long-term recovery from addiction to this important position would inspire the millions of Americans and their families who have battled addictions," wrote the group's executive director, Pat Taylor. "Even if Congressman Ramstad were not in recovery, he would be an excellent candidate for the Director of ONDCP. A Member of Congress for 18 years, he is a highly experienced and respected legislator who led the successful battle to require health insurers to cover addiction treatment at parity with other medical conditions. He founded and co-chaired the bi-partisan Addiction Treatment and Recovery Caucus and the Law Enforcement Caucus on Capitol Hill and has been influential in shaping drug policy in countries around the globe. He was a practicing criminal justice attorney for five years and has served on numerous non-profit boards; all of whom have the reduction of the global demand for drugs as part of their mission."

And Ramstad has picked up support from progressive groups like his home state Wellstone Action, the legacy of progressive Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone. In a January 9 letter, the group argued that despite Ramstad's misguided stands on needle exchange and medical marijuana, he still deserved the nomination. "Congressman Ramstad's leadership on policies and programs within the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy will serve President-elect Obama's administration and millions of Americans well," Wellstone Action said.

The reform movement is split on Ramstad, with treatment advocates coming down in favor and harm reductionists and drug law reformers opposed. As addiction skeptic Dr. Stanton Peele noted in the Huffington Post Tuesday: "For Wellstone, the Kennedy's, and many other progressives, the idea of treating substance abusers as disease sufferers is tremendously appealing -- indeed, one thrust of the drug policy reform movement is to shift from incarcerating addicts to treating them! But, for reformers, courting treatment advocates has come a cropper as addiction-as-disease proponents back a man who stands against drug policy reform's basic value of finding new, pragmatic approaches to drugs in America."

The drug reform movement is broad and encompasses many diverse actors. Where they come down on the Ramstad issue reflect philosophical differences as well as institutional interests. Just because we're part of a broader movement doesn't mean we're always going to agree.

Another Chance to Pressure Obama for Drug Policy Reform

Obama’s Change.gov website has created yet another feature for soliciting ideas from the public. This time it’s called the Citizen’s Briefing Book and you can vote on ideas or submit your own. The winning ideas will be printed out and handed to Barack Obama, so he can wipe his ass with them.

Unsurprisingly, the most popular idea is legalizing marijuana, yet again. This has really escalated to the point of absurdity and if the new administration hasn’t figured it out yet, this will continue until they either give us an intelligent response, or stop asking us to post ideas on their website.  

If, like me, you’re becoming cynical about this whole process, shake it off. Go to the website and vote. There is no way of measuring the impact of our repeated domination of Change.gov, but it is intuitively greater than zero. They wouldn’t keep doing this if it didn’t mean something to them.

Ducking Drug War Questions at Change.gov

Obama’s transition team responded to the second round of Change.gov questions on Friday, proving yet again that they’d sooner defeat the purpose of the site than actually discuss drug policy.

Last time, a question about marijuana legalization got the most votes from the public, resulting in a one sentence "no" response. This time, the questions were broken into categories, and this question came in first in the "national security" section:

"Our current war on drugs is failing America. Billions of dollars are spent on a losing campaign. Our prisons are overflowing with people that don't deserve to be there. What is the government going to do in an effort to fix this major problem?"

But it wasn’t answered. It was the only leading question to receive no acknowledgement, thus the national security category was ignored entirely. Obama’s team claimed that some leading questions were put aside to make room for new ones:

Since there were so many popular questions in so many categories, we tried to pull out some of them that had been addressed previously by the President-elect or Vice President-elect in order to focus the video portion on questions that haven’t been as specifically addressed during the Transition.

The questions that fall into this category appear at the bottom of the post, except when you scroll down, you find the marijuana question from the first round, but not the new drug war question that won in the second installment. It’s sort of a bait and switch, the idea being that by referencing the old marijuana question, we’ll forget that a totally different drug policy question won in the second round and Obama refused to touch it.

All of this is perfectly predictable, and I won’t meet with much success trying to make a controversy out of it. Still, it serves as yet another obnoxious reminder of the desperate avoidance of any meaningful discussion of our drug policy in mainstream politics.

Bush Appoints Interim Drug Czar

Speculation about Obama’s as yet unknown choice for drug czar just got a little more interesting. Today, the White House  announced that ONDCP’s acting Deputy Director Patrick Ward will be promoted to acting director. In other words, the much-anticipated next drug czar will be…Patrick Ward.

He’s a former Air Force guy who joined the federal drug office to run foreign interdiction efforts:


… Mr. Ward is in frequent and close contact with relevant officials from the Drug Enforcement Administration, the United States Coast Guard, the Central Intelligence Agency, and departments of Defense, Homeland Security, State, and Justice. Mr. Ward co-chairs the relevant National Security Council Policy Coordinating Committee on International Drug Control, and represents ONDCP at meetings of the NSC Deputies.


To put it mildly, Ward isn’t a public health specialist. He’s a drug warrior who knows how to fly fighter planes. He’s everything we’re hoping to avoid with Obama’s theoretically pending drug czar nomination.

So what the hell is going on here? I have no idea. With only a week left in office, there’s no way Bush did this without a nod from the Obama camp. It’s become increasingly clear that Obama isn’t ready to fill the position, so I guess someone’s gotta do it. An interim appointment suggests that we’ll be waiting a while for Obama’s choice, and in the meantime, we’ll have a full-blown drug warrior running the show.

That sucks, and it’s Obama’s fault, but what can really be said about it? Jim Ramstad’s name was floating around, but mounting opposition appears to have disqualified him for good reasons. I’ll take a couple months of Patrick Ward if it means we get someone better down the road, but it’s still hard to imagine Obama selecting someone I could support.

If nothing else, the fact that the drug czar appointment process has gotten so drawn out and confusing is certainly a result of the potent controversy now surrounding the position itself. I believe Obama recognizes that ONDCP is a seriously flawed institution and he’s trying to reconcile that with his perceived political obligations. That’s fine, but the longer he leaves the same people calling the shots at the drug czar’s office, the further he’ll find himself from the drug policy "paradigm shift" he proposed on the campaign trail.

Update: Pete Guither reminds me that this won’t be the first time we’ve had a temporary drug czar, so maybe it’s not as odd as I’ve made it sound. Still, I think it’s interesting that drug czar appointments get handled this way. The position just isn’t taken that seriously, either by the administration or the press. Maybe it wouldn’t be that way if there were a greater perception of flexibility in our drug policy, such that one drug czar could be really different than another.

Fortunately, this time the policy issues at stake are more visible than ever before. The President-elect has made some pretty strong statements about our drug policy and the madness of the last 8 years has solidified numerous coalitions that will vigorously oppose anyone who doesn’t promise big changes at the drug czar’s office.

DEA Blatantly Blocks Medical Marijuana Research

After stalling for two years, the DEA has conveniently chosen the final days of the Bush Administration to act on the Craker petition:

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The Bush administration struck a parting shot to legitimate science today as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) refused to end the unique government monopoly over the supply of marijuana available for Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved research.  DEA's final ruling rejected the formal recommendation of DEA Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Mary Ellen Bittner, issued nearly two years ago following extensive legal hearings.

"With one foot out the door, the Bush administration has once again found time to undermine scientific freedom," said Allen Hopper, litigation director of the American Civil Liberties Union Drug Law Reform Project. "In stubbornly retaining the unique government monopoly over the supply of research marijuana over the objections of DEA's own administrative law judge, the Bush administration has effectively blocked the proper regulatory channels that would allow the drug to become a wholly legitimate prescription medication."

The DEA ruling constitutes a formal rejection of University of Massachusetts at Amherst Professor Lyle Craker's petition, filed initially June 24, 2001, to cultivate research-grade marijuana for use by scientists in FDA-approved studies aimed at developing the drug as a legal, prescription medication. [ACLU]


Marijuana, unlike LSD, MDMA, heroin and cocaine, is almost impossible to obtain for research purposes and the DEA will do everything in its virtually infinite unchecked power to keep it that way. We all know why: they’re afraid of what the research will show.

The really disgusting part of all this is that the drug warriors actually go around claiming that we need more research before we can allow patients to use medical marijuana, all the while doing everything in their power right before our eyes to prevent that research from happening. There’s nothing secret about any of this. You can just watch them do it.

And the best part of all is that the DEA actually managed to churn out a 118-page monstrosity explaining their position, which can be summed up as follows:

Marijuana is bad and we are powerful, so f**k you. Furthermore…f**k you. And in conclusion, based on the aforementioned facts…f**k you.

I don’t know why it took them over a hundred pages to flesh it out. I guess they just love killing trees.

West Africa: Here Come the Narcs

In the last three years, South American cocaine traffickers aiming at lucrative European markets have increasingly turned to West Africa as a way station in the intercontinental trade. Now, the narcs are following them. Several countries, including the US, Brazil, and Colombia, are either increasing or establishing an anti-drug presence in the region in a bid to dent the traffic.

The countries of West Africa are poor, crime-ridden and beset with weak institutions, making them attractive to traffickers able to buy protection on the cheap. And with half of the world's cocaine now going up the noses or into the crack pipes of Europeans -- use rates there have doubled in the past four years, according to the UN -- traffickers are rushing to set up shop in places like Guinea-Bissau, Ghana, and Sierra Leone. One quarter or more of all cocaine headed for Europe now transits West Africa.

Colombian National Police Commander Gen. Óscar Naranjo said last week that he will soon send a 10-man anti-drug team to the region, with a headquarters in Sierra Leone. "We want to establish a common front with these countries, to help identify the Colombian traffickers who come and go," Naranjo said.

Brazil, which is itself a major consuming country as well as a transshipment point, is also sending narcs across the water. About a half-dozen agents are headed for West Africa, one foreign narcotics agent told the Los Angeles Times.

And the US DEA is getting in on the action, too. While for years, the DEA had only one office in the entire continent, in Lagos, Nigeria, it is now expanding its activities in West Africa, agency spokesman Garrison Courtney told the Times. "The drug traffic is now going both ways. Cocaine is moving through Africa and on to Europe, while precursor chemicals from China and India for making methamphetamines are now transiting through on the way to Central America and Mexico," Courtney said. Profits from the trade could be funding terrorists, he warned.

Drug busts are already on the rise in the region. In 2001, less than a ton of cocaine was seized in West Africa; by 2006, the figure was up to 14.6 tons, according to the UN. Last year, four tons were seized in Mauritania and Senegal alone, 2.5 tons were found on a Liberian freighter, and another half-ton on board a plane that crashed at Sierra Leone's international airport.

Guinea-Bissau has been an especially tempting spot for traffickers. One of the poorest nations in the world, it has a two-ship navy, no prison, and a few dozen police. Under last year, when tougher laws were passed, the maximum penalty for drug trafficking was a $1,000 fine, even if the quantity in question weighed in the tons. Two suspected members of the Colombian FARC guerrillas were arrested there in 2007 while on a drug trafficking mission -- and mysteriously released.

Now, West Africa will be treated to the tender mercies of the DEA and its homologues.

Feature: Proposed Medical Marijuana Rules in Michigan Stir Chorus of Complaints

The Michigan Department of Community Health (MDCH), which is charged with crafting rules and regulations for the state's voter-approved medical marijuana program, got an earful from patients and activists at a public hearing in Lansing Monday. The MDCH draft regulations are overly burdensome and sometimes conflict with the new law, patients and activists charged.

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Michigan Capitol
Under the state's medical marijuana law, which passed with the approval of 63% of the voters, MDCH has until April 4 to craft program regulations and begin issuing ID cards to qualified patients and caregivers. But now, after the detailed criticisms of its draft regulations, MDCH will have to go back to the drawing board -- and move fast.

Under the proposed rules, those qualified to grow and use marijuana would have to register yearly and be issued registration cards that could be revoked for criminal use or sales. Registered medical producers could supply no more than five patients each, and possess no more than 12 mature plants and 2.5 ounces of marijuana per patient.

Among the proposed rules drawing the ire of patients and advocates was one that would require patients to keep an inventory of the amount of marijuana they had on hand and one that would require patients to treat their medical marijuana supply more restrictively than they treat other medicines, including prescribed opiates, by requiring that the usable marijuana -- not just the plants -- be kept in an enclosed, locked facility. Another proposed rule, barring the use of medical marijuana in view of the public, went beyond the scope of the law, which only bars use in public, patients complained. They said that rule could lead to patients being arrested for medicating on their porches or even inside their homes if visible through a window.

"It seems to me you are attempting an end-run of what the people wanted and voted for," said Ken Shapiro of East Lansing, who uses marijuana for metastatic melanoma that, he said, has afflicted him for 31 years. Shapiro said he had endured radiation, chemotherapy, and more than 50 operations during his struggle with the disease. "Marijuana helped me get through it," he said. "It should be taken for granted that seriously ill people are not dealing drugs."

Another medical marijuana patient, Tom Higgins of Bay City, who currently cultivates his own marijuana outside the protection of the law, said proposed rules requiring disclosure and paperwork requirements could create a trail that could expose him to federal prosecution. "I won't follow the rules as they are now; I'll just keep growing marijuana as I have been," said Higgins, who suffers from hepatitis.

"The regulations are far more burdensome than necessary, directly conflict with the law that the voters enacted in several areas, and would require things not permitted by the law," said Karen O'Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, which backed the November initiative. "The department doesn't have the authority to create new, restrictive requirements, but that's what they've tried to do."

O'Keefe also testified at the Monday hearing, where she presented a detailed, 22-point list of required revisions to bring the draft regulations in compliance with the medical marijuana law. Voters approved the law and the safeguards it contains "without requiring self-incrimination or making life overly difficult for the seriously ill patients whom 63% of Michigan voters chose to allow to use medical marijuana without fearing arrest," she told the hearing.

O'Keefe was guardedly optimistic that MDCH would heed the complaints. "They've said they would take all comments into consideration, and we hope they will do so. We want this to be fixed and to see the program up and running as soon as possible," she said. "Until they set the rules, they won't be issuing ID cards, and until then, patients are at risk of arrest."

"The rules as proposed were overly technical and burdensome," said Greg Francisco, executive director of the Michigan Medical Marijuana Association (MMMA), the state's largest patient group. "But once we went through the hearings and explained our concerns, I think the state realized its rules weren't workable. We were not happy with the original rules, but we are happy the state seems to be listening."

Indeed, at the end of the hearing, State Bureau of Health Professions policy analyst Desmond Mitchell, who conducted the meeting, said the MDCH "will review everything and take a look at what revisions need to be made" in the coming weeks.

Even law enforcement complained about some of the proposed rules, especially one that would require that the medicine of patients who died or left the program be turned over to the state police. "It's burdensome for law enforcement to have someone come in, asking to destroy 12 plants," said Greg Zorotney of the State Police executive division. "Plants can grow quite big."

But Zorotney also told the panel that the ID card system should be entered into the same database as drivers' licenses, and that raised a red flag for advocates. "The state police don't want to be running around gathering up plants and medicine," said MPP's O'Keefe. "That's reasonable, and so is wanting the ability to verify ID cards 24-7. But they also want some kind of access to the patient database, and the law says that patient information is confidential. The only information they are entitled to is whether the patient is indeed registered," she said.

During the campaign to pass the initiative, the public face of patients was the Michigan Coalition for Compassionate Care, but that MPP-funded group went out of business once its electoral objectives had been achieved. Now, MMMA, representing patients and activists who kept a low profile during the campaign, is coming to the fore.

"MPP asked us to lay low during the campaign, but we organized behind the scenes so we would be ready to go," explained Francisco. "We launched at the close of the polls on November 4. MMMA is about patients and what's right for the state and coming up with a workable medical marijuana program for the state," he said.

Now, MDCH has about three weeks to revise the rules and submit them to a legislative committee. The committee can either approve or reject the rules. If it rejects them, the legislature will have two weeks to write a bill with new rules, get it passed, and have it signed by the governor. In either case, the April 4 rollout date looms large.

"They have one more chance to get it right," said Francisco. "Once the revised rules go in, that's it. I really do believe these are just bureaucrats trying to do their job and that they will make the necessary changes. If not, it's litigation time."

"This has gotten a lot of attention in Michigan," said O'Keefe. "There was a really strong patient and advocate presence at the hearing, and there was a lot of media there. I think the department understands that it is important to get this right. If not, we are prepared to litigate," she warned.

Feature: DEA Rejects Yet Another Rescheduling Petition, But the End Game Lies Far Down the Road

The DEA has rejected yet another petition seeking to remove marijuana from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), this one from Iowa-based marijuana reformer Carl Olsen. It is only the latest petition rejection by the agency in a glacially-paced struggle to reschedule marijuana that has been going on since 1972.

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marijuana plants
But Olsen and other advocates of the rescheduling tactic say that is to be expected, and the rejection is only the opening phase of this particular battle, not the end of the line. And while Olsen heads to federal court to challenge the DEA ruling, another petition to reschedule marijuana is still in process, as it has been for the past six years.

Richard Nixon was just beginning his second term in office when the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) filed the first rescheduling petition. It took 22 years and numerous court challenges before the DEA finally rejected that petition. In the meantime, the DEA rescheduled marijuana's primary psychoactive ingredient, THC, as a Schedule II drug in 1985 and loosened controls over THC even further by rescheduling it to Schedule III in 1999. That allows doctors to prescribe Marinol, but not marijuana.

Another rescheduling petition, filed by Olsen in 1992, was rejected years later, as was a 1995 petition submitted by former NORML head, researcher, and professor of public policy Jon Gettman. In 2002, Gettman, in association with a long list of supporters, submitted yet another Cannabis Rescheduling Petition, which remains pending.

Under the CSA, he argues, substances must meet several criteria to be placed in Schedule I, the most restrictive schedule. The substance must have a high potential for abuse, it must have "no currently accepted medical use" in the US, and there must be a lack of accepted safety for use of the substance. Both the Olsen petition that was rejected last month (although the decision was not published until this week) and the pending Gettman petition argue that marijuana no longer qualifies to be placed in Schedule I because it does have "currently accepted medical use" in the US, citing in particular the ever-growing number of states that have legalized its medicinal use.

But the two petitions differ in the way they seek to remedy the situation, and it is this difference that accounts for the vastly different pace at which they have been handled by the DEA. While the Gettman petition is still awaiting a ruling six years after it was filed, Olsen's petition was only filed this year. The Gettman petition seeks to reschedule marijuana through the administrative process, the Olsen petition argues that the issue is a matter of statutory law. Under the CSA, if marijuana is found to have "currently accepted medical use," it cannot be Schedule I.

"I filed in May, filed a federal lawsuit in September, and got a ruling December," said Olsen. "The DEA has never moved that fast on a petition in its history, and by denying the petition, it is avoiding the possibility of having to deal with it again because now it will instead go back to the court of appeals."

Olsen's petition was not a request, but a demand that DEA recognize the reality that marijuana cannot be a Schedule I drug, he said. "I didn't ask for anything; I demanded that they comply with the law. It's not a Schedule I drug, and they are breaking the law by keeping it there," he said. "The statute says it can't be a Schedule I drug if it has accepted medical use, and 13 states say it has accepted medical use. Doesn't that mean anything?"

Not according to the DEA it doesn't. "Your petition and notice rest on your contention that federal drug law gives states the authority to determine, for purposes of the CSA, whether a drug has a 'currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States,' and that marijuana has such a currently accepted medical use because 12 states have passed laws relating to the use of marijuana for medical purposes," wrote DEA Deputy Administrator Michele Leonhart in denying the petition.

Leonhart cited the Raich medical marijuana case in arguing that marijuana has no "accepted medical use" because the federal government doesn't recognize it, and even quoted from the decision: "The Supremacy Clause unambiguously provides that if there is any conflict between federal and state law, federal law shall prevail," and "Congress expressly found that [marijuana] has no acceptable medical uses."

Leonhart also quickly disposed of additional arguments presented by Olsen, summarizing her position by finding that "the existence of state legislation is not relevant to a scheduling determination." Thus, "there is no statutory basis for DEA to grant your petition to initiate proceedings to reschedule marijuana. Nor is there any basis to initiate any action based on your August 5th notice. The Petitioner's request is denied."

Now, it will be up to the federal courts to decide who is right. "The court has to rule on my complaint to enjoin the DEA from enforcing Schedule I," said Olsen. "If they rule in my favor, the DEA cannot claim it is a Schedule I drug; it will have to remove it from Schedule I."

In either case, the losing side will appeal. Look for a resolution of the Olsen case some time in the not-so-near future.

That's just how Olsen planned it, said Gettman. "I wasn't surprised at the DEA decision, and I don't think Carl was either," he said. "The whole point of his petition was to get this into federal court, and to do that, he had to be rejected administratively. This is really the beginning of Carl's legal challenge rather than the end."

Gettman credited Olsen with breaking new ground with the petition and even for inspiring Gettman himself to get involved with rescheduling. "Carl's arguments greatly clarify and build on state-level recognition of medical use, and set the stage for greater attention to this matter," he said. "And I have to say that Carl's activity and pioneering efforts are one of the things that inspired me to file the 1995 petition in the first place."

Meanwhile, Gettman's petition is still pending, although it has already moved through several stages of a lengthy bureaucratic process involving the DEA, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Food & Drug Administration (FDA). "The last time we got a status report from FDA, they were nearing the end of their review," Gettman reported.

He is no hurry right now, he said. "We have deliberately decided not to pressure the government to complete the review. We would prefer to deal with the next administration instead of the current one," he explained. "Regardless of how the election turned out, we would have new personnel overseeing the process, and we think a fresh perspective would be beneficial."

Even if the FDA were to come down with a favorable review, there are many steps between that and actually rescheduling marijuana, and even then, the fight over marijuana will still be underway, said Gettman. "Rescheduling will not make medical marijuana available right away and it is not the end of deciding marijuana's regulatory status, it's the beginning," he said. "But it would change the regulatory environment and make it easier for states to accelerate the pace of reform, as well as make it easier for human studies to get under way and for companies to develop marijuana as a medical substance. Schedule I status discourages companies from doing that."

NORML founder Keith Stroup, who was in on the original 1972 rescheduling effort applauds Gettman's and Olsen's efforts, but said he has lost faith in ever gaining redress through that process. "I just don't believe anymore that the rulemaking process is ever going to work in our favor," he said. "We've been trying since 1973, and I think we're going to have to win this the old-fashioned way, through the legislative process or voter initiatives. I just don't think the people in those agencies have the principled courage to do the right thing," Stroup added.

"Still, I'm pleased that Carl and Jon continue to pursue these avenues," he said. "It's to our advantage to put pressure on the system wherever we can."

Whether it's a long-shot or not, the effort to change the marijuana laws through seeking rescheduling is not going away. And who knows? It might actually pay off big one of these years.

Obama Administration: Surgeon General Nominee Gupta Hates Marijuana, Sort of Supports Medical Use

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Sanjay Gupta (loc.gov)
Drug reformers busily poring over the tea leaves in an effort to discern the drug policy intentions of the incoming Obama administration have found little solace in the announcement that it will nominate Dr. Sanjay Gupta for the position of surgeon general. One of America's most famous doctors, Gupta is a neurosurgeon who also doubles as a correspondent for CNN and CBS News.

The Obama administration offer came after a two-hour meeting between Gupta and Obama in Chicago in November. At that meeting, Obama told Gupta he would have an expanded role in providing health policy advice and would be the highest-profile surgeon general in history.

Gupta has a history in health policy. He served as a White House fellow in the 1990s, writing speeches and advising Hillary Clinton on health policy issues. He is also an accomplished, telegenic communicator.

While he has received criticism from some quarters for being too friendly with big pharmaceutical companies and from others for wrongly accusing filmmaker Michael Moore of falsehoods in his documentary "Sicko," it is his old-school views on marijuana that are raising hackles in drug reform circles. Most famously, in a November 2006 editorial in Time magazine, Gupta, while acknowledging marijuana's medical benefits for some patients, went on to repeat a raft of long-debunked anti-marijuana myths as reasons for opposing marijuana reform initiatives on the ballot in Nevada and Colorado that week. In Gupta's words:

"Maybe it's because I was born a couple of months after Woodstock and wasn't around when marijuana was as common as iPods are today, but I'm constantly amazed that after all these years -- and all the wars on drugs and all the public-service announcements -- nearly 15 million Americans still use marijuana at least once a month. California and 10 other states have already decriminalized marijuana for medical use. Two states -- Colorado and Nevada -- are considering ballot initiatives that would legalize up to an ounce of pot for personal use by people 21 and older, whether or not there is a medical need.

"What do voters need to know before going to the polls?

"The first is that marijuana isn't really very good for you. True, there are health benefits for some patients. Several recent studies, including a new one from the Scripps Research Institute, show that THC, the chemical in marijuana responsible for the high, can help slow the progress of Alzheimer's disease. (In fact, it seems to block the formation of disease-causing plaques better than several mainstream drugs.) Other studies have shown THC to be a very effective antinausea treatment for people -- cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, for example -- for whom conventional medications aren't working. And medical cannabis has shown promise relieving pain in patients with multiple sclerosis and reducing intraocular pressure in glaucoma patients.

"But I suspect that most of the people eager to vote yes on the new ballot measures aren't suffering from glaucoma, Alzheimer's or chemo-induced nausea. Many of them just want to get stoned legally. That's why I, like many other doctors, am unimpressed with the proposed legislation, which would legalize marijuana irrespective of any medical condition.

"Why do I care? As Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, puts it, "Numerous deleterious health consequences are associated with [marijuana's] short- and long-term use, including the possibility of becoming addicted."

"What are other health consequences? Frequent marijuana use can seriously affect your short-term memory. It can impair your cognitive ability (why do you think people call it dope?) and lead to long-lasting depression or anxiety. While many people smoke marijuana to relax, it can have the opposite effect on frequent users. And smoking anything, whether it's tobacco or marijuana, can seriously damage your lung tissue.

"The Nevada and Colorado marijuana initiatives have gained support from unlikely places. More than 33 religious leaders in Nevada have endorsed the measure, arguing that permissive legalization, accompanied by stringent regulations and penalties, can cut down on illegal drug trafficking and make communities safer.

"Perhaps. But I'm here to tell you, as a doctor, that despite all the talk about the medical benefits of marijuana, smoking the stuff is not going to do your health any good. And if you get high before climbing behind the wheel of a car, you will be putting yourself and those around you in danger."

Whether Gupta if confirmed will support medical marijuana -- as opposed to mere THC-based pharmaceuticals such as Marinol -- or do good for drug policy reform in other ways, remains to be seen. And he did demonstrate a willingness to acknowledge some of the arguments made by the other side. But his apparent blindness to the harm caused to marijuana users by arrest and incarceration is not a great first sign. Change we can believe in for drug policy? Only time will tell.

The Border: US Prepares "Surge" In Case Prohibition Violence in Mexico Spills Over

The United States has developed plans for a "surge" of law enforcement and even military deployment along the US-Mexican border in case prohibition-related violence in Mexico spills across the border, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Wednesday. The plans have been in the works since last summer, he said.

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US Border Patrol
About 8,000 people have been killed in Mexico's drug wars since President Felipe Calderón unleashed the military against the so-called cartels two years ago, more than 5,300 of them last year. The dead include members of rival cartels, who are fighting the Mexican state as well as each other, along with hundreds of police and soldiers, and innocent bystanders.

Mexican border cities have been some of the hardest hit, with some 1,600 people killed in Ciudad Juarez (across from El Paso) last year and hundreds more killed in Tijuana (across from San Diego). Border area law enforcement and political figures have been increasingly worried that the violence will flow north across the border just like the illicit -- and hugely profitable -- black market trade in drugs does.

"We completed a contingency plan for border violence, so if we did get a significant spillover, we have a surge -- if I may use that word -- capability to bring in not only our own assets but even to work with" the Defense Department, Chertoff told the New York Times in a telephone interview.

Homeland Security officials told the Times the plan called for aircraft, armored vehicles, and "special teams" to be ready to converge on any emerging hot-spots, with the size of the force depending on the scale of the problem. Military forces could be called on if civilian agencies like the Border Patrol and local police forces were overwhelmed, but the officials said that was considered unlikely.

"I put helping Mexico get control of its borders and organized crime problems" at the very top of the list of national security concerns, Chertoff added.

The US has also responded to the violence in Mexico by approving a three-year, $1.4 billion anti-drug assistance plan, the first tranche of which is now flowing to the Mexican state. It will provide military equipment, helicopters, planes, and training.

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