Reefer Madness

Medi-Pot Morass: Still no progress

Reefer Madness

July was a busy month for medi-pot advocates. Among the highlights: a (brief) congressional hearing before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Home­land Security to address, among other things, opposition to medicinal marijuana by the Drug Enforcement Admini­stra­tion and White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and, on July 26, a House vote on the Hinchey-Rohr­a­bacher Amendment, which would direct the DEA to cease pot-prohibition enforcement against medi-pot patients in states that have approved medicinal usage of cannabis by seriously ill patients. Ultimately, the hearing went nowhere, really, and the vote failed (for the third year in a row), leaving things in medi-pot land strictly status quo -- or so it would seem.

There were, of course, highlights -- both progressive and ironic -- along the way. It's always worthwhile to hear government officials (in this case, the DEA and ONDCP) explain, and defend, pot prohibition. It's healthy, actually, to force the issue, especially where it concerns such an utterly losing proposition as the ongoing, endless, disastrous war on drugs; it's unwinnable and unsuccessful -- unless, of course, bureaucratic survival is the ultimate goal.

This is not to say there aren't "successes" embedded deep within the morass. Take, for example, the drop in teen drug use the ONDCP annually champions. This is a good thing -- drugs aren't inherently good or bad, but they are potent substances that should not be dallied with carelessly. But (news flash), teen drug use forever waxes and wanes, and it's hard to credit the work of federal narcos with the inevitable ebb tide -- especially since they don't seem to be all that successful at interrupting the market. (If they were, don't you think we would have won this damn thing by now?) It's far more logical to credit parents, peers, and other mentors for any drop in use. After all, the feds themselves routinely tout parents as "the anti-drug."

It's instructive, however, to view official statements through the lens of crediting the feds with the teen-usage ebb. Take, for example, the written testimony of David Murray, the ONDCP's head scientist, at the July 12 subcommittee hearing. The ONDCP opposition to medi-mari is based on government insistence that medi-pot laws "don't work and lead to drug-related violence," breeding "abuse, confusion, and crime," he asserted. There is, of course, no vast body of empirical evidence to back this up, at least none that Murray (or any of the other witnesses) ponied out at the hearing. Apparently eager to inject a "history" lesson into the mix, Murray plowed forward. Cannabis was often included in patent medicines at the turn of the last century, but its use as medicine was risky and often proffered by "fly-by-night swindlers," he asserted. In sum, he reiterated the government's assertion that there is no medically acceptable use for marijuana and that in regulating the legal drug trade, the Food and Drug Administration is tasked with "more than making people 'feel better'" -- indeed, he said, they're tasked with keeping people safe. And we all know what a good job they're doing on that front.

The notion that pot has no medical value is absurd considering the feds have done their best to block the kind of research necessary to secure FDA approval. Instead, they'd prefer we buy their promise, consider the thousands of seriously ill medi-pot patients nothing more than crazed tokers, and just move on. Refreshingly, Reps. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and Robert Scott, D-Va., called the bluff. The subcommittee has received "numerous complaints" about the DEA handling of various medicines -- including raids on medi-pot patients and dispensaries, carried out on the assumption that pot could not be medicine. Yet the government maintains a monopoly on research-grade pot, meaning, ultimately, "little progress has been made toward determining if medicinal marijuana could meet the FDA's approval standards," said Scott, the subcommittee's chair. "Even if the law technically gives the DEA authority to investigate medical-marijuana users, it is worth questioning whether targeting gravely ill people is the best use of federal resources." In response, Joseph Rannaz­zisi, DEA deputy assistant administrator in charge of diversion control, had little to offer -- aside from the rote our-hands-are-tied assertion that because the DEA must enforce federal drug prohibition, its agents are powerless to ignore medi-pot patients who break federal law. Conclusion: Those with a well-honed sense of discretion, perhaps critical thinkers, need not apply at the DEA.

Of course, that doesn't mean a career in federal law enforcement isn't for you. Just last week, the FBI announced it is relaxing its policy on past drug use, meaning former pot-smokers are not automatically banned from joining the agency. Under the revised policy, applicants will be barred only if they've used pot within the past three years or any other illegal drug within the past 10 years -- or if the pot use in question was for more than just "experimentation," reports USA Today. The agency is seeking to hire 900 new agents, and hopes the relaxed standard will help. (Plus, agency officials told the paper, the new rules promote "honesty" in the application process.)

Fortunately for the federal narcos, U.S. House members, as a whole, still aren't willing to forbid the DEA from prosecuting ill patients who use medi-pot in compliance with state laws. On July 26, the Hinchey-Rohrabacher Amendment, which would protect sick patients and ban all taxpayer-funded raids in any state where medi-pot use is regulated (there are 12 now), failed on a vote of 165-262. This is the third time the bipartisan measure, sponsored by Reps. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., and Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., was called up for a vote by the full House and the third time, in as many years, that it has failed. In all, 15 Republicans voted in favor of the measure (a loss of three votes from 2006), including Texas' Ron Paul, who is also a presidential candidate; 150 Democrats voted in favor (an increase of six votes from last year), including Austin Rep. Lloyd Doggett.

"The newly elected Democratic Congress had an opportunity to stop wasting taxpayers' dollars arresting seriously ill patients who possess and use medical cannabis in compliance with state law," Allen St. Pierre, head of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws said in a press release. "Sadly ... members of Congress ... chose instead to continue prosecuting patients."

There's always next year.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

medical marijuana, Robert Scott, DEA, Drug Enforcement Agency, ONDCP, Office of National Drug Control Policy, Maurice Hinchey, Dana Rohrabacher, NORML, National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, MPP, Marijuana Policy Project, Lloyd Doggett, Ron Paul, Joseph Rannazzisi, David Murry, Reefer Madness

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