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Medical Marijuana Debate: MPP vs. ONDCP

Submitted by smorgan on
This evening, Georgetown Law School’s chapter of SSDP hosted a debate on medical marijuana between MPP’s Assistant Communications Director Dan Bernath and ONDCP’s Chief Counsel Ed Jurith. Since the drug czar’s minions seldom subject themselves to public scrutiny, and only do so in D.C., it was my duty to document the dialogue.    

Bernath began with a reference to the recent discovery of a 2,700-year-old marijuana stash in the tomb of a Chinese shaman, establishing the extensive history of the medical use of marijuana. He described the dimensions of the current medical marijuana debate, including the support of the medical community, the benefits for a growing population of users, and the evolution of public opinion in support of protecting patients through ballot initiatives and state legislatures.

Jurith framed his argument from a legal perspective, providing a chronology of caselaw upholding federal authority to enforce marijuana and other drug laws. He emphasized the FDA approval process, insisting that reformers seek to bypass the traditional pathways through which medicines are deemed safe and effective. He focused heavily on dismissing the notion of a "fundamental right" to use medical marijuana, although Bernath hadn’t presented his position in those terms.

As the discussion proceeded, I was struck by Jurith’s continued preference for defending the legality rather than the efficacy of the federal war on marijuana. He just wouldn’t go there. In Q&A, I pointed out that the Raich ruling certainly doesn’t mandate a campaign against medical marijuana providers and that DEA demonstrates their discretion every day by declining to prosecute the majority of dispensary operators. Will he defend the raids in a practical sense? What determines who gets raided and who doesn’t? He responded with the notorious Scott Imler quote about medical marijuana profiteers, but never really answered the question.

So basically, the head lawyer at the drug czar’s office came forward to assure us that what they’re doing is technically legal, while failing in large part to actually help us understand why they do it. In turn, Bernath easily and convincingly depicted how ONDCP’s role in the medical marijuana debate consists entirely of opposing/interfering with state level reforms and blocking the exact research they claim is necessary.

I’d like to think that Jurith’s one dimensional presentation is indicative of the shrinking box from which his office draws its talking points on medical marijuana. Is the growing body of medical research and the solidification of popular support beginning to suck wind from the pipeholes of the proud protagonists in the war on pot? Jurith never compared marijuana to hard drugs, never employed the formerly obligatory "Trojan-horse-to-legalization" line, and generally declined to completely lie his face off when cornered. Maybe he’s just nicer than, say, this guy. But it’s also true that ONDCP as we know it is about to be dismantled and it may be that nobody over there currently gives a crap if the mild-mannered Ed Jurith is kind enough to put himself on the spot for the educational benefit of some law students.

Either way, by ONDCP standards, this was a fairly defanged defense of the war on medical marijuana. Jurith is absolutely correct that the federal government maintains considerable authority over the enforcement of our drug laws and it will be fascinating to see what happens when that power changes hands.

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