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The Presidency Goes to Pot

Irresponsible Obama.

Feb 3, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 20 • By JOHN P. WALTERS
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With his unique appeal to the young, President Obama has suddenly transformed the “experiments” in Colorado and Washington state into an experiment involving every kid in America.

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First, the administration made a unilateral decision to curtail enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act in states where smoked marijuana has been defined as medicine (the only “medicine” that cannot meet modern medical standards). Next, the administration announced it would not enforce the federal law when the states of Colorado and Washington sought to permit the open sale of marijuana. Now, asked to comment on marijuana legalization by the New Yorker’s David Remnick, President Obama tells the country that “it’s important” that legalization experiments “go forward.”

Obamacare is in disarray, and Syria is on fire, but marijuana is important? Obama offers the presidential version of a shrug. “As has been well documented, I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life. I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.”

While he calls smoking and toking “a bad habit and a vice,” this doesn’t seem to mean much of anything—certainly nothing serious. But it is serious. The president is cutting the legs out from under every parent and schoolteacher and clergyman across the country who is trying to steer kids away from illegal drugs. Our “coolest president” ever has made drug education into a punch line.

As it stands, the law will not be enforced (by executive directive) and the criminal drug market will be augmented by the open production and sale of marijuana. Moreover, Obama speculated that legalizing “hard” drugs, including cocaine and meth, might ultimately be a matter of creating a “negotiated” or “calibrated” dose for safer use. From a policy perspective, that leaves you with treating the wounded through programs now consolidated under the Obamacare banner. The result is appalling. Allow more and more poison to harm more and more families, destroy the respectable basis for prevention education that deters the use of these poisons, and just treat the victims, again and again and again.

As absurd as the administration’s policy has become, it is even more striking that no serving national leader, Democrat or Republican, has called the administration to task. Where is the tradition of President Reagan and the bipartisan work against the drug problem that was led for years by senators Biden, Leahy, Feinstein, Hatch, Grassley, and Sessions and representatives Rangel, Cummings, Hoyer, Issa, Ros-Lehtinen, and Wolf? Why don’t the dedicated public servants at such places as the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Drug Enforcement Administration—those who know the truth, have dedicated their professional lives to protecting Americans from substance abuse, and even risk their lives daily—speak up?

Obama’s remarks to Remnick point to the powerful role of ignorance and distortion. Obama simply ignores the known magnitude of marijuana addiction and the growing list of dangers associated with regular and frequent use, especially by young people. Even the national self-report surveys, known for undercounting, show that 79 percent of America’s 23.9 million illegal drug users in 2012 used marijuana.

Worse, over a fifth of pot smokers needed treatment according to current diagnostic criteria; that is, 4.3 million users of marijuana need treatment, more than all other illegal drugs combined. Marijuana is a much wider health problem than what Obama called the “hard” drugs of cocaine and meth (or heroin, for that matter).

And there is a reason for that. Today’s marijuana has many times the potency (as the dealers and retailers tout regularly) of the weed that Obama and his contemporaries smoked in the 1970s. This contributes to the danger of addiction, but also increases other serious risks reported by researchers over the last 10 to 15 years. These include worsening or even triggering serious mental illness (including depression and psychosis) and permanent loss of up to eight IQ points. In addition, there are the well-known risks of short-term memory loss, inhibited concentration, and impaired motor function. These are the known dangers facing the low estimate of 18.9 million users. And the best available figures show that marijuana users have jumped almost 24 percent under President Obama—from 15.3 million in 2008 to 18.9 million in 2012.

What if we did simply treat marijuana like alcohol or cigarettes? Despite all the anticigarette measures, there are still over 57 million smokers, and there are 135 million drinkers. Can we expect marijuana use to approach these magnitudes? Such questions do not seem to occur to the president.

Instead, Obama makes two moral arguments that get to the heart of the distortion in today’s attitudes about illegal drugs. First, Remnick says,

What clearly does trouble him is the radically disproportionate arrests and incarcerations for marijuana among minorities. “Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do,” he said. “And African-American kids and Latino kids are more likely to be poor and less likely to have the resources and the support to avoid unduly harsh penalties.”

The charge is ludicrous. No one gets “locked up for smoking pot”—federal mandatory minimums don’t even kick in below 220 pounds, and only 9 percent of federal marijuana convictions involve African Americans. No part of law enforcement in America targets pot-smoking kids or simple users of any age. No one is being frisked on the streets for the purpose of finding marijuana users. 

There are two major causes of drug possession charges in our criminal justice system. The first is trafficking, which may well be pled down to a lesser charge. The second is the commission of violent or property crime, when the individual at the time of apprehension and arrest for that crime is found to have drugs in their possession. In a significant portion of these cases, the offender may be charged with the lesser drug possession rather than the more serious underlying crime. If such possession laws were repealed, the probable effect would actually be longer sentences based on charges for the original offense. 

What Obama evades is the fact that there are inequities in the demography of criminal offenders, which are also reflected in the demographics of their victims. He implies this is a matter of racism, but, while all the possible causes are not understood with certainty, the most probable is the breakdown of family structure and related institutions, which are especially important in the formation of healthy young men.

Obama also seems to have missed one of the most promising public policy developments of the past two decades—drug courts, which drive tens of thousands of users into treatment every year. Law enforcement has become the single greatest source of referral to treatment of any institution in America. Our justice system, including more than 2,600 drug courts, now sorts out criminals who are not violent threats but engage in crimes because they are addicted and tries to get them clean and sober. It does this with considerable success, given the challenges of addiction. Instead of expressing pride in this achievement, Obama utterly misrepresents the reality. Inmates in state prisons make up the largest single segment of the prison population, and fewer than one-half of 1 percent are sentenced for possession of marijuana. In fact, drug offenses of all types have been declining as a percentage of arrests and sentences at both the federal and state levels.

Obama’s second moral argument may be an even more powerful force in suppressing debate than his false charge of racism. The Remnick interview includes this comment from the president:

“[W]e should not be locking up kids or individual users for long stretches of jail time when some of the folks who are writing those laws have probably done the same thing.” Accordingly, he said of the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington that “it’s important for it to go forward because it’s important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished.”

This is an absurd but politically powerful argument with baby boomers, since the subtext is that people who have smoked pot are hypocrites if they disagree. Legalization is an act of justice, and those who oppose it want to perpetuate injustice. For a political official especially (although Obama’s argument includes all of us), if you got away with marijuana use and oppose legalization, you are supporting the arbitrary victimization of those who are just like you. Even if you did not use drugs, you are unjust to support laws that punish a few when many offend. This seems to be necessarily linked to Obama’s initial claim that marijuana (and maybe other illegal drugs) is not really harmful. If illegal drugs are harmful, it would seem that not being able to stop or deter that harm in even a majority of the cases would still make it moral to protect and bring justice where possible. Most laws and principles of morality exist in this condition because human justice, even at its best, is far from perfect.

On the other hand, Obama clearly suggests that the racial and socioeconomic disparity in enforcement discredits drug laws and those who defend them. He has not faced the fact that there are racial and socioeconomic disparities in crime and punishment, but they are not caused by drug laws, and they will almost certainly get worse as drug use expands. The pervasive, willful denial of all this is a powerful driver of the moral argument for legalization.

An even stronger driver of legalization may be the simple inability of former users to admit to themselves and to others that what they did was wrong and dangerous, even if they were lucky to avoid serious harm. It is just not cool to say such things, and certainly from the point of view of the many users who were not harmed, marijuana seems harmless. To speak of the harms as a public figure is to criticize many who are just like you and who feel the risks are really not so great. This is a tricky business of denial, however. Virtually everyone has a loved one who has been a victim of substance abuse. We have all watched celebrities and public figures destroy themselves and pass in and out of treatment. We also know of or live in parts of our country that have been devastated by drugs and crime.

Antidrug liberalism has been based on protecting the vulnerable from victimization, but it has lost its way in substituting demographics for moral principle and character. Antidrug conservatism also sought to protect the vulnerable and to preserve individual freedom from addiction and self-destruction. Today some conservatives confuse the institutions and laws needed to preserve freedom with the threats to freedom—they equate willfulness with freedom.

American democracy has always needed leaders who know the truth and have the courage and skill to bring the truth to our public deliberations. That need is greater today than it has been in some time.

John P. Walters, director of drug control policy for President George W. Bush, is chief operating officer of the Hudson Institute.

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