Friday Talking Points -- A Weed Screed

The subject under the microscope today is marijuana, and (in particular) the federal government's views and actions towards this issue.
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A "screed" is today generally understood to be a long and quite possibly boring speech or essay. Synonyms usually offered up by dictionaries include such derogatory terms as: "harangue, diatribe, rant," and definitions are chock-full of modifiers such as: "monotonous, long, tedious." The root form of the word actually comes from the Old English word for "shred," screade, which migrated into Middle English as screde, meaning "a fragment or strip of cloth." The first recorded use of the word in the modern sense was in 1789 -- the same year the United States Constitution was ratified -- where it was taken to mean "reading from a long list," perhaps written on such a shred of cloth.

So, did that paragraph set the stage, or what? Long... check. Monotonous or tedious... check. Diatribe? Well, that's coming, never fear....

This is all by way of introducing you to today's column. We're throwing out our usual format today, because of a monumental shift in federal policy this week. Such a momentous and historic occasion deserves special treatment, we feel, and that special treatment translates to the following unorthodox presentation: first, a few awards; then, some talking points from respected voices; and finally, my own screed at the end.

The subject under the microscope today is marijuana, and (in particular) the federal government's views and actions towards this issue. Enjoy, or be warned -- that's pretty much going to be "it" for this week. Don't complain later, if you were expecting our weekly nonsense today, that's all we have to say by way of introduction.

Oh, sure, there were other important events in the world of politics this past week -- from the semicentennial celebration of the "March On Washington For Jobs And Freedom" (and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech) to the perceived immediacy of America's war with Syria -- but they are just going to have to take a back seat, sorry. Because the announcement that the federal government will not be suing the states of Washington and Colorado to overturn their state laws legalizing adult recreational marijuana eclipses even such momentous occasions, we feel. Because it is actually the first time in our lifetimes that the federal government has taken such a concrete step away from further escalation of the War On Weed. And that, we feel, deserves special recognition.

In fact, it richly deserves a "weed screed." So, buckle your seatbelts, and smoke 'em if you've got 'em (to coin a phrase...).

Although we wrote about the historical aspects of this week's shocking news yesterday, we have to provide some buildup before awarding the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week this week.

First, we've got an Honorable Mention award to deliver, to President Barack Obama. It is simply inconceivable that Attorney General Eric Holder would have taken the position he took yesterday (and today) without some form of input from the White House.

President Obama is now the third consecutive occupant of the Oval Office to admit smoking pot in his younger days. That, right there, says something. Oh, sure, we all love the "stoner on the couch" jokes, but our past three presidents have now publicly admitted smoking pot. As has the most-decorated Olympic athlete of all time. Even nominees for the Supreme Court have admitted youthful joint-smoking -- which absolutely proves what an absolute lie it is that everyone who smokes pot eventually ends up pumping gas or in some other dead-end job, or (even worse) living in their parents' basement well into their 30s. Well, OK, Bill Clinton tried to "triangulate" the whole thing with his laughably inane "I didn't inhale" horse puckey; but then again, he was the first president to admit toking up, so it is somewhat understandable (if not entirely excusable). That happened, to put it in context, over two decades ago.

Having said all of that, President Obama -- former "Choom Gang" member -- deserves at least an Honorable Mention for his tacit approval of Holder's announcement.

Which leads up to the inevitability of one of this week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week awards going to our current Attorney General, Eric Holder himself. Holder has only won this prestigious "Golden Backbone" award four times previously, one of which was two weeks ago when he announced he would be changing the "mandatory minimum" policies of the federal government vis à vis the War On (Some) Drugs. Once again, I expounded on the historic reasons Holder deserves his fifth MIDOTW award yesterday, if you're interested in my reasoning.

But we also have a second MIDOTW to hand out as well, to Senator Patrick Leahy. Because this confluence of events may have happened without Leahy's intervention, but his efforts were spectacularly productive. Senator Leahy, of course, is the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee -- the body in the Senate charged with oversight of the Department of Justice. Four days ago, Chairman Leahy announced the scheduling of hearings on the subject of "Conflicts between State and Federal Marijuana Laws." He "invited to testify" Attorney General Eric Holder and Deputy Attorney General James Cole. At the time, Leahy released the statement: "It is important, especially at a time of budget constraints, to determine whether it is the best use of federal resources to prosecute the personal or medicinal use of marijuana in states that have made such consumption legal. I believe that these state laws should be respected. At a minimum, there should be guidance about enforcement from the federal government."

Yesterday, Senator Leahy's office released the following statement:

With federal and state policies in conflict, guidance for states and for the law enforcement community has been long awaited and in short supply. I welcome the fact that the Justice Department has now provided this direction as we near the Judiciary Committee's hearing on the variation between state and federal marijuana laws. Our oversight on this issue was intended to provide movement on this policy question. All the more in a time when federal resources are especially scarce, the Justice Department should focus on countering and prosecuting violent crime, while respecting the will of the states whose people have voted to legalize small amounts of marijuana for personal and medical use. I look forward to hearing more about this issue from the Deputy Attorney General at the Judiciary Committee's hearing next month.

So while it is impossible to prove "causation" here, Senator Leahy has to be acknowledged for pushing the issue to the forefront of the political debate in Washington. The key phrase is "[o]ur oversight on this issue was intended to provide movement on this policy question."

It's pretty hard to argue that in the last four days, Leahy's scheduling his hearing didn't "provide movement on this policy question." This is not to say that Leahy's statement four days ago lit the fire under Holder that finally led him to publicly release a policy that had been waiting in the wings since early November, 2012 -- when Washington and Colorado voted in their new laws. Holder has actually been promising such a policy since last December (when he said it would be coming "soon"). So it's unlikely that Leahy's going public with the Senate schedule initiated Holder's new policy, but it did indeed force the Obama administration's hand. Senator Patrick Leahy forced Holder into this position -- absent Leahy's forcefulness, Holder may indeed have dithered for weeks, perhaps months.

Holder's policy, if we take it on its face value, has been contemplated for many months now. But forcing the timing of its release should be chalked up to Senator Leahy's insistence and perseverance on the issue. Which is as good a reason as any to award Senator Patrick Leahy with his forth MIDOTW award. Without Leahy's persistence, who knows how far Eric Holder would have actually gone?

[Congratulate Attorney General Eric Holder via the White House contact page and Senator Patrick Leahy on his Senate contact page, to let them know you appreciate their efforts.]

Volume 271 (8/30/13)

We have no candidates for Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week, because that's just the type of week it was. We could have given another MDDOTW to Bob Filner, on his last day in office, but there's really no point since he's on the way out.

Instead of the talking points we usually offer up here on Fridays, we're going to turn over the rest of the program to the reactions of six marijuana activists, because they certainly deserve to be heard this week. Most of these were taken either from press releases mailed to me or from a Huffington Post article which condensed the reactions of many others.

Then at the end (since we usually like a nice round seven items here), I'm going to offer up my own mini-rant, which deals with the optimistic question: "Where do we go from here?"

Marijuana Majority

Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority, issued the following statement:

It's nice to hear that the Obama administration doesn't at this point intend to file a lawsuit to overturn the will of the voters in states that have opted to modernize their marijuana policies, but it remains to be seen how individual U.S. attorneys will interpret the new guidance and whether they will continue their efforts to close down marijuana businesses that are operating in accordance with state law.

It's significant that U.S. attorneys will no longer be able to use the size or profitability of a legal marijuana business to determine whether or not it should be a target for prosecution, but the guidelines seem to leave some leeway for the feds to continue making it hard for state-legal marijuana providers to do business.

The administration's statement that it doesn't think busting individual users should be a priority remains meaningless, as it has never been a federal focus to go after people just for using small amounts of marijuana. The real question is whether the president will call off his federal agencies that have been on the attack and finally let legal marijuana businesses operate without harassment, or if he wants the DEA and prosecutors to keep intervening as they have throughout his presidency and thus continue forcing users to buy marijuana on the illegal market where much of the profits go to violent drug cartels and gangs.

In all, today's announcement represents a step in a right direction and a recognition by the administration that the politics of marijuana are rapidly shifting in favor of those who support legalization. However, my optimism is tempered by the fact that despite the Justice Department's 2009 announcement that it shouldn't be a priority to bust medical marijuana providers operating in accordance with state law, this administration went on to close down more state-legal marijuana businesses in one term than the Bush administration did in two terms.

Polls from Pew and Gallup show that a supermajority of Americans wants the president to follow through on his 2008 pledges to respect marijuana laws, and that's what advocates will continue pressing him to do.

Drug Policy Alliance

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, had the following to say:

[Holder's announcement] demonstrates the sort of political vision and foresight from the White House we've been seeking for a long time. I must admit, I was expecting a yellow light from the White House. But this light looks a lot more green-ish than I had hoped. The White House is basically saying to Washington and Colorado, "Proceed with caution."

National Cannabis Industry Association

Statement from Aaron Smith, Executive Director of the National Cannabis Industry Association:

We are encouraged by today's response from the Obama administration. At the heart of the guidance is a willingness to respect the voters who have decided a regulated marijuana market is preferable to a criminal market in their states. Cannabis-related businesses in these states are creating thousands of jobs and generating tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue. These are clear public benefits.

Now is not the time to push marijuana sales back under ground. The new voter-approved, regulated systems in Colorado and Washington should be allowed to proceed. We have full confidence the businesses in these states will comply with any requirements put forth by the Department of Justice. That is what they do. They comply with rules and provide a service to their customers and their communities. We are pleased to see the Obama administration will not cause harm to citizens and states by shutting these businesses down, and hope this will lead to an expansion of sensible policies related to marijuana such as allowing these businesses access to banking and taxing them at a fair rate.

American Civil Liberties Union

The reaction of Ezekiel Edwards, director of the ACLU's Criminal Law Reform Project:

[Holder's announcement is] one more concrete step towards more sensible drug policy in this country. We support the attorney general's decision not to interfere with individuals and entities that are complying with state marijuana laws, thereby respecting states' voter-approved and common-sense approaches to regulating marijuana. As the DOJ guidance makes clear, if states and local governments that have enacted laws legalizing marijuana create strong and effective regulatory systems, the federal government will defer to them to enforce those systems.

Marijuana Policy Project

Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project had this to say:

Today's announcement is a major and historic step toward ending marijuana prohibition. The Department of Justice's decision to allow implementation of the laws in Colorado and Washington is a clear signal that states are free to determine their own policies with respect to marijuana.

We applaud the Department of Justice and other federal agencies for its thoughtful approach and sensible decision. It is time for the federal government to start working with state officials to develop enforcement policies that respect state voters, as well as federal interests. The next step is for Congress to act. We need to fix our nation's broken marijuana laws and not just continue to work around them.

Representative Jared Polis

House member from Colorado Jared Polis was right at the center of the fight, and he was overjoyed at the news:

I am thrilled Attorney General Eric Holder and the Department of Justice are allowing Colorado and Washington to regulate their own state laws regarding recreational and medicinal marijuana. This is a big step in allowing small businesses to grow and succeed while following state and federal laws. I am hopeful that other states may see marijuana regulation as an opportunity to reduce crime, combat drug abuse, and enhance economic opportunity.

I fully support the eight priorities outlined by Attorney General Holder including prosecution for marijuana distribution to minors and protecting motorists from drugged drivers. This new sensible approach by the federal government will make all of us safer and respect the rights of states to determine how best to regulate marijuana within their borders.

My weed screed -- where we need to go now

And now, my own reaction. Because we've still got a long way to go.

Eric Holder made history this week, for signaling the most significant retreat in the War On Weed the federal government has made to date. The Department of Justice will honor the will of the voters of Colorado and Washington, and finally begin to fully honor the wishes of the people in the other 18 states which have legalized medical marijuana using the democratic process.

But much more needs to happen before the full insanity of the War On Weed has been retired to the history books.

The first thing that needs to happen is for the Justice Department to order that all cases currently in the federal court system prosecuting (and persecuting) people who have followed their state's laws only to be busted by the feds. Cases which do not fit the new guidelines Eric Holder just announced need to be immediately dropped.

The next step would be to review the cases of anyone currently in federal prison who were convicted in federal court for similar reasons, and not only free those who deserve it, but issue them pardons as well. There are people in jail who were not allowed to make their case to the jury which convicted them, because federal judges will not allow the defense of "I was following state law and providing medicine to people who need it." Any defendant who requested to use this defense but was silenced in the courtroom instead should be immediately pardoned.

Eric Holder can -- with the stroke of a pen -- reschedule marijuana as a Schedule II Dangerous Controlled Substance. It is ludicrous for the federal government's position to remain that marijuana is a more dangerous drug than cocaine, opium, amphetamine, methamphetamine, and PCP. Move marijuana to Schedule II, and then later Holder can de-schedule marijuana altogether. Again, all that this step requires is Holder's signature. Which needs to happen now.

The next thing the Justice Department should do is to announce that the federal government will no longer use "asset forfeiture" in the manner it has basically been doing since the Drug War hysteria of the 1980s. The Justice Department should also strongly urge state and local government to follow their lead, to end the horrific abuses which are still occurring daily.

Next, the Justice Department needs to announce that any future raids of marijuana growers or businesses will have to be pre-cleared by the state's law enforcement officials, to provide a check on businesses which are following state law perfectly. No DEA raids will take place unless the state agrees that a business has fallen afoul of the law.

Then the Justice Department needs to announce that legitimate scientific research will no longer be hampered for medical marijuana studies. As Dr. Sanjay Gupta recently pointed out, science is not being allowed to happen because of a political ideology. This needs to end -- completely. Marijuana research shouldn't have to go through any more licensing or hurdles than researching corn, or researching a new pharmaceutical drug.

There has been long-term damage to the United States Constitution throughout the Drug War, in particular the War On Weed. Long-term, the Justice Department should rededicate itself to restoring the Fourth Amendment rights which have been trampled upon for decades. Drug arrests should follow the same rules of evidence, with sworn warrants, as any other criminal case -- instead of declaring that the rules don't apply for drug crimes.

Also long-term, the entire federal government needs to revisit all punitive measures it has taken over the last three decades. How does it make the slightest shred of sense to deny someone a student loan who has been guilty of a drug crime? What is the point? If you want someone to stop doing drugs and make a better future for themselves, shouldn't you encourage them to go to college, instead of making it impossible for many? All federal laws, from student loans to housing, should be reviewed and legislation should be introduced to Congress to overturn the ones that have never made sense other than for politicians to appear "tough on crime" at election time.

The War On Weed didn't end this week. It did finally -- finally -- take a turn towards sanity, which is indeed worthy of celebration. But it's just the first step. Abuses are still happening right now which also need to be addressed. I call on President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder to keep moving in the right direction. I know all of these things aren't going to be accomplished tomorrow. There is a gigantic "drug warrior" machine which needs to be dismantled, and it's going to take some time to do so. I realize this.

But it's all going to be a lot easier now that we've taken the first step. Each successive step will become clear, and will become obvious. The War On Weed must end. The abuses must end. The insanity must end. Step by step, we'll get there.

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