Editorial: Priorities and Principles 5/7/04

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David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected], 5/7/04

David Borden
Scarcely a day goes by that we are not reminded of the new, uncomfortable world we inhabit. The threat and reality of international terrorism; civil liberties vs. security; debates on war, intelligence, diplomacy -- the national dialogue cycles amongst all these and more, as we strive to chart a course amidst the challenges and emotions of an unfamiliar time. One colleague commented to me recently that all times are uncertain, not only our time. This is certainly true. But sometimes the uncertainty is more painful or harder to set to the side than at other times.

One of the less reported aspects of the Richard Clarke book was the discussion of priorities within the FBI prior to 9/11. Drugs figured prominently; the drug war was a top area of concern -- by order of Attorney General John Ashcroft himself (though to be fair, drugs were a high priority under previous administrations too). Drugs are such a high priority for Ashcroft's Dept. of Justice, in fact, that mere days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, they began a series of raids against California medical marijuana cooperatives -- the first such raids in three years -- consuming the time of trained law enforcement personnel who might instead have been put to work defending the nation rather than persecuting sick people and their caregivers (https://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle-old/209/medmjwar.shtml).

Years before, leading drug reform pioneer Arnold Trebach, founder of the Drug Policy Foundation, expressed this sentiment in a speech delivered at a 1996 criminology conference in Jerusalem:

What is not generally recognized is that the skills and personnel most successful in enforcing prohibition are also the most effective in curbing terrorism.

The greatest successes of the American Drug Enforcement Administration have come from good intelligence, long-range planning and prediction, and undercover work. These are the same skills that other agents have used to penetrate terror networks.

It goes without saying that society is at greater risk from bombs than drugs.

All of us would be infinitely safer if the courageous efforts of anti-drug agents in the US, Israel and other countries were focused on terrorists aimed at blowing up airliners and skyscrapers than at drug traffickers seeking to sell the passengers and office dwellers cocaine and marijuana.

At DRCNet we were seven or so years behind the curve in starting an organization, relative to Arnold. We partially made amends for that two years later by issuing our own warning note on a closely related issue destined to hit our country in the face: In issue #21 of this newsletter, December 1997, we highlighted the Taliban's human rights violations and support for terrorism, and condemned a UN and Clinton administration plan to fund them to do extermination of opium poppies in Afghanistan (https://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle-old/021/editorial.shtml).

We should set rational priorities for law enforcement. And we shouldn't violate our moral principles to turn a blind eye to murder and repression and support for terrorism, building up those who commit such evils by shortsighted acts of realpolitik. It shouldn't require the destruction of a pair of skyscrapers, and a former terrorism czar going on TV, to drive these obvious connections home to our nation's political leaders.

Too bad that police and prosecutors in New York City, the target of the worst attack, haven't yet gotten the priorities part straight: Ten days ago, District Attorney Morgenthau's office issued a press release bragging about the achievement of a full six police agents in finding an alleged dorm room college drug dealer. Instead of stopping her from selling drugs right away, they first waited for her to sell drugs to them eight times, in order to be able to bring charges against her carrying possible multi-decade sentences. The ultimate cost to taxpayers may well exceed a million dollars.

The Ninth Circuit encompasses the nine western states of Alaska,
Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon,
Washington, and Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. (Photo and
info from http://www.ce9.uscourts.gov.)

It is ironic that as the airwaves buzzed with Clarke's critiques of the administration's handling of terrorism, a court dealt a second blow to the fundamental legal and intellectual underpinnings of the Ashcroft medical marijuana raids. Late last year, medical marijuana patients Angel McClary Raich and Diane Monson won a stunning victory in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, on the grounds that the federal Controlled Substances Act did not apply to patients receiving medical marijuana in states where it was legal and who were not engaged in commerce (https://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle-old/316/victory.shtml); the Interstate Commerce Clause does not reach that far, the court found. Then, two weeks ago, a judge in San Francisco extended the reach of that ruling, applying the same idea beyond a single patient's needs to a cooperative supplying medical marijuana to many patients -- DOJ's raid on the WoMen's Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM) of Santa Cruz was not legal, according to US District Judge Jeremy Fogel, and DOJ must let WAMM be (https://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle-old/334/wamm.shtml).

The fate of the rulings in the Supreme Court is uncertain; perhaps they will ultimately be overturned. Only time will tell. But in the meantime, medical marijuana is legal under both state and federal law, within a certain framework, in the several western states making up the 9th Circuit. So the post-9/11 Ashcroft medical marijuana raids were not only a foolish misapplication of limited police and investigatory resources -- they may actually have violated our nation's laws. At least a distinguished panel of high-level federal judges thought so, based on fundamental constitutional principles. If the Supremes eventually decide otherwise, the most the raiders will be able to say is that some judges think their raids were legal. There's no judicial consensus that the raids were legal under the Constitution. And with a host of successful pro-medical marijuana initiatives on the record, bills passed in some state houses, and polling showing public support for medical marijuana in the 70 or 80 percent range, clearly the public for the most part doesn't believe that medical marijuana should be illegal, regardless of whether it is now. I'd wager that fewer that one percent of one percent of Americans consider arresting, prosecuting and imprisoning medical marijuana patients or their providers to be as important to the nation's interests as protecting us from terrorists.

What better time to choose more rational priorities than in this new, uncomfortable world we inhabit? What more important time to return to first moral principles, and see how we can better, if not perfect, our own morality and the actualization thereof? Will clearer thinking about priorities and the drug war make us safer?

I don't know, but I hope so. Certainly it will help us in a lot of other ways. Let's not wait until another skyscraper tumbles down or for something even worse, before we learn from the mistakes of the past and present.

-- END --
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Issue #336, 5/7/04 Editorial: Priorities and Principles | Nation Pays Huge Bill for Criminal Justice System -- $167 Billion a Year, Says Justice Department | Setback for State, Federal Pain Pill Offensive: Florida Prescription Monitoring Bill Dies in House | Million Marijuana Marches: Tranquility in New York, Thousands in Toronto, First Time in Sweden, Troubles in South America | Announcing: "The New Prohibition: Voices of Dissent Challenge the Drug War" -- New Compendium by Sheriff Masters Features David Borden and Numerous Other Thinkers on Drug Policy | Newsbrief: Australian Greens Call for Uniform Marijuana Laws | Newsbrief: Marijuana Initiative Campaign Underway in Columbia, Missouri | Newsbrief: MPP Files New Challenge to Drug Czar's Nevada Campaigning | Newsbrief: DEA Agent Demonstrates Gun Safety to School Kids -- By Shooting Himself | Newsbrief: Justice Department Investigating National Drug Intelligence Center | Newsbrief: Prison Building Binge Skews Census Figures, Shifts Benefits and Political Power, Study Says | This Week in History | The Reformer's Calendar

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