A Response to Gil Kerlikowske: Obama Drug Policy 'Incomplete'

What possible point does it make to threaten a local sheriff or even a state attorney general with 20 years in prison for writing and implementing sane regulations for medical marijuana?
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To: R. Gil Kerlikowske

Director, White House Office of National Drug Control Policy

Two and a half weeks ago, I (as your faculty advisor in the College of the American People) assigned to you a medium-length writing project on the subject of what the official "White House Drug Policy" would be, looking forward. I have received your submission of a press release and accompanying official drug policy announcement on the White House website. First, I would like to thank you for your timely completion of this assignment.

However, I must warn you that your submissions, both the "Drug Policy Reform In Action: A 21st Century Approach" article posted on The Huffington Post, and the "Drug Policy Reform" site on the official White House website are woefully incomplete. In fact, were I to grade these essays as they stand, they would fall somewhere in the "D to D-minus" range. I am writing you today in the hopes that you will consider resubmitting these to us here at the American People, in the hopes of increasing your grade. What you've got so far shows some promise, but you have skipped over a rather large portion of the assignment in your essays. Hopefully, if you go back and address the gaping hole in both of these papers, it will be a much better piece of writing, and will engender a much better policy in the end (and a better grade).

In a word, your assignment is woefully incomplete on a single subject: marijuana. This word appears not once in either document, which is kind of astounding since this is truly the only part of the White House drug policy which currently (and desperately) needs addressing, given the changing political situation. To put this another way, your paper might have garnered a higher grade last year, but we now live in 2013, and you have failed to address -- at a minimum -- the fact that the states of Colorado and Washington have now legalized recreational marijuana, and the number of states which have approved medicinal marijuana is approaching 40 percent. By failing to use the word "marijuana" once, you are ignoring the entire point of the assignment, which is why your grade range is currently just above abject failure.

To improve your paper, and to improve your chances for a better grade, I suggest you concentrate on one main question: What is the official Obama administration policy on marijuana? This can be further broken down to what the official Obama administration policy will be on medicinal marijuana and recreational marijuana in states that have legalized either or both -- with particular attention to the overlap between federal and state law. You may wish to enlist the help of Eric Holder on answering these questions, just as a suggestion.

On the White House's official site, you provide an extensive 100-page paper on the official drug control policy for 2013, but even this exhaustive document never once addresses the changing legal framework in Colorado and Washington, and also skips right over the states which have medicinal marijuana laws on the books. Even this impressively-long document fails to address the one subject which is quickly changing in the world of politics and the law.

I realize that what you were trying for was a "drug policy overview," but you have taken the "overview" concept too far. For instance, in your article, you write: "Nationwide, drug-induced overdose deaths now surpass homicides and car crashes as the leading cause of injury death in America," but you do not break this down between prescription drugs and illegal drugs, making the statistic almost meaningless when attempting to address it, policy-wise.

I did like your theme of "science-based" which you wove throughout both documents. This is in keeping with what President Obama initially promised, before he was elected. But, on marijuana in particular, you fail to address the almost-complete ban on research and scientific evidence the federal government has maintained for decades. You say you want evidence, but in order to perform proper scientific research on the medicinal qualities of marijuana, scientists are forced into an almost-impossible thicket of rules and roadblocks when applying to the multiple agencies necessary for the permission to even conduct such studies. This all but stops marijuana research in its tracks, because almost no scientists to date have been able to successfully navigate this ocean of red tape. This policy is, to be blunt, anti-science. You are saying "our policy is based on science" at the same time the federal government refuses to let scientists study an issue -- because you are politically frightened of the outcome. How is anyone to provide scientific evidence if the science is not allowed to happen?

One specific thing you need to address is the continued insanity of listing marijuana as a Schedule I controlled dangerous substance, which states that it has no medicinal value whatsoever. This is an untenable position intellectually, since as mentioned almost 40 percent of American states have approved marijuana for medical use. How high does this number have to get before you admit what is glaringly obvious to the casual observer: Marijuana does indeed have medicinal properties. Again, if you allowed the science to take place freely, we could be a lot further down the road to medically understanding the properties of marijuana, instead of not knowing exactly what scientifically-provable properties it does have.

You strike a positive note on the subject of law enforcement, noting that we will never be able to arrest our way out of the problem. This is a good start. However, while you have positive things to say about drug courts and the like, you have failed to address a much higher-level problem: federal law enforcement priorities. How many federal law enforcement resources and how many federal dollars are devoted to this problem, compared to other federal law enforcement priorities such as defeating terrorism (just to pick a random example)?

Currently, the Justice Department is not only targeting people growing and selling medicinal marijuana in states which have legalized such use, but they seem to actually be on a crusade with a farther reach than any other president has ever attempted. This includes using threats of prosecution against such people (or businesses) as newspapers who run ads for medicinal marijuana, or who rent a building to a medicinal marijuana dispensary. It also includes threatening severe tax penalties against medicinal marijuana providers in multiple ways. Will the Obama administration continue to attempt to deny these businesses the ability to open a bank account? Why are medicinal marijuana providers being told they cannot take such common tax deductions as the costs of their rent or other simple "doing business" costs, like every other business does on their taxes? Simply put, what is the purpose of doing so?

Even more insidious a question is why the Justice Department seems to be targeting both law enforcement officials and politicians with the threat of the severest penalties ("major drug trafficker") just for attempting to implement common-sense rules and regulations for what the people of their state has approved at the ballot box? What possible point does it make to threaten a local sheriff or even a state attorney general with 20 years in prison for writing and implementing sane regulations for medical marijuana?

But the real lack in your writing was the core reason the assignment was given in the first place -- what is the Obama administration position on Colorado and Washington's new recreational marijuana legalization? This is what has changed. This is the policy gap that desperately needs addressing. The Obama administration has been letting the people of these two states twist in the wind for almost six months now, and we have heard not a peep from the Obama administration about what the federal reaction is going to be when "pot shops" open up right next to the liquor stores in these two states. This silence has gone on too long already, and this stonewalling must end.

Go back and re-read the original assignment, to clarify, if necessary. This is what the American People are demanding. What will the new Obama policy be? What legal route are you going to take? If you don't answer this basic question -- a question we've already been waiting half a year for an answer to -- then you should count yourself lucky to even get a "D-minus" on your Drug Policy assignment.

The only reason the paper, as it stands now, didn't get a flat out "F" for failure is that you do offer -- at the very end -- some very interesting proposals to do away with several Draconian laws currently on the books, such as barring any young American from getting a student loan after a drug conviction. This is so self-defeating it is mind-boggling. If you want to encourage kids away from drugs and towards a productive life, why in the world would you make it harder for them to go to college? This was the one redeeming grace in your entire paper, and I do strongly encourage the White House, President Obama, and the entire administration to follow up on this as soon as possible.

I still have an open mind on what you can produce, Mr. Kerlikowske. I consider your submission to be not an abject failure, but simply woefully inadequate on one major subject -- the core subject the assignment was supposed to force you to think about. Which is why I am considering what you have submitted to merely be an early draft of your acceptable completion of the assignment. For now, I have marked you down as "Incomplete," and would encourage you to go back to the drawing board and address what your paper now lacks. Address the issues I've raised in this letter, and I will give your submission all the consideration it deserves. Fail to address these issues, and you're looking at a D-minus.

Remember, this will go on your permanent record.


-- Chris Weigant

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