It has been painful from the outside looking in to watch President-elect Barack Obama begin to cobble together his cabinet officers and senior staff in regards to what prospects there are for substantive cannabis law reforms in this first term.
There are only a couple of key appointments left that may signal the political tea leafs for cannabis law reforms in Obama 1.0 — head of Drug Enforcement Administration (which serves under the Attorney General at the Department of Justice) and the Drug Czar (see below regarding rumored nominee).
Who among current Obama nominees are giving me some acid burn?
In order of importance:
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel
“For us regarding opposing drugs and any reforms, it is: harms criminal justice; children; the pharmaceutical process and the legalization stalking horse.” -R.E., 1997
As a longtime observer of Rahm’s ascendancy into the stratosphere of politics (Chicago Mayor Daley’ staff, President Clinton’s White House, Congress, and now back to the White as Chief of Staff) what has me most concerned about Rahm is that for so long he has been so consistent in opposing drug policy reforms, most especially cannabis law reforms. In the Clinton White House he played a major role in domestic policy making, with a strong nod to matters of criminal justice. He was effectively the White House’s point man with the Drug Czar. In my view, Rahm was not concerned with effective policy-making as much as image making, so as to help inoculate the President (and Democrats) from the historical albatross hanging from their necks during most national elections—fear of being viewed by the Republicans, and more importantly the general public, as being ‘weak on crime’.
To put it bluntly, Bill Clinton and Al Gore lied their way up and down the countryside running for the Oval office in the summer of 1992, promising liberal donors, gay activists and drug policy reformers that if elected, at a minimum, they would expand the federal government’s Compassionate Investigative New Drug Program (a.k.a. IND, run by the Public Health Service), which allowed for a small handful of federally-approved medical patients to receive up to 300 ‘joints’ per/month for a serious medical condition.
When Clinton and Gore took office in 1993, they immediately felt the political pressure from state politicians, major gay donors and activists, notably from California, who’d impressed upon Clinton the need for medical cannabis for AIDS and cancer patients.
However, and disappointingly, rather than expand the important research program, Rahm and Co. moved to dismantle it, and by late July 1994 Clinton had canceled the IND program, grandfathering the group of eight patients in the program a columnist at the Washington Post deemed the Acapulco Eight.
Taking a far more politically pragmatic path than a compassionate one, Rahm chose to ignore the science (and the Constitution I’d hastily add) and conflate the somewhat easy to distinguish and politically popular battle for patients to access medicinal cannabis with the decidedly unpopular ‘War on Some Drugs’.
In the spring of 1997, a writer and author who interviewed Rahm for a major Rolling Stone piece on the ‘Drug War’, after he’d walked the 3 blocks from Rahm’s White House office to NORML’s K St. office, kindly shared with me his three pages of shorthand notes. The writer, who’d spent a few days in DC interviewing all of the major players in drug enforcement and drug policy reform had wanted to get an interview with Rahm, because absent the President, there was likely no other person in the nation at the time who had more sway over which way the Executive branch implemented drug control strategies.
When I asked, “Well, how was the interview, where does Emanuel stand on the issue of marijuana?” The writer looked up from his notes and said, “NORML is so screwed. In Emanuel you have the prototypical liberal drug warrior: More government intervention, more laws, more arrests; less freedom and personal responsibility.”
What do these notes reveal from 1997?
When asked why did the Clinton Administration so actively oppose the 1996 ballot initiatives in California (and Arizona) to legalize medical access to cannabis, Rahm’s replies:
-We opposed the Arizona initiative because it had to with sentencing and harder drugs;
-We opposed the California initiative because it sent the wrong message to children and we believe that there is downward trend in use right now that these laws will hurt; send wrong message.
-This procedure should not be done by initiative. We have procedures whereby drugs are tested and approved. These initiatives don’t follow those procedures.
-We took an unpopular position on this. Our position is based on policy even if polls are going the other way.
When asked ‘what makes Clinton’s drug policy any better than George Bush. Sr.’s?’, Rahm’s replies:
-We have passed anti-meth legislation before meth has taken off nationally. Law enforcement are telling me that we got ahead of it.
-Our four points for control: drug testing, drug treatment, coerced abstinence works and if the states want the money for prisons they have to adopt what is proven successful.
-Some members of Congress want to defund the ONDCP, but General McCaffrey is different, brings energy and focus to the job.
-We [Clinton Administration] shifted resources from borders to domestic, community policing and drug free school efforts.
-There is nowhere near enough treatment space for the demand.
-This is about attitude and putting federal dollars to work.
When asked about medical marijuana community (doctors, patients, AIDS and drug policy reform organizations), Rahm slapped his head with his hand and said…
-“We oppose it [cannabis] because there is no doubt that the funding comes from those who advocate legalization. We thought this was the first of many battles and needed to fight.”
When asked about the high number of annual cannabis arrests in the US, Rahm said:
-“I’ve never heard of a police chief who says they waste their time on small time marijuana arrests. I would be surprised if very many people are being arrested for small marijuana possession.”
Further, “For us regarding opposing drugs and any reforms, it is: harms criminal justice; children; the pharmaceutical process and the legalization stalking horse.”
-“I think there is a sadder side to all of this that McCaffrey has spoken eloquently about how people who have used drugs in the past should not be disqualified or attack for their pasts.”
-“Yes, we believe it is a genuinely dangerous drug when it comes to kids. I’ll show you data after data that kids who go onto to harder drugs started off with marijuana.”
-“Laws signal acceptability or not. In this area we say its unlawful and we think that it helps parents say this is wrong.”
Whew. Well, there you have it, from NORML’s huge archives and directly from the writer’s notebook circa spring 1997. A couple of closing thoughts on Rahm and his views on cannabis…
Tactical and political savvy as Rahm clearly is, history proves the decisions President Clinton and he made regarding medical cannabis (and decriminalization) were demonstrably wrong. Rather than yield any quarter or embrace science, compassion and the Constitution in being so rigid and recalcitrant on the public health/criminal justice conundrum of medicinal cannabis, Rahm actually helped accelerate, not retard, the state-based strategy of reformers. From 1996-2000, the Clinton Administration failed to stop grassroots efforts to pass state initiatives or legislation in eight states that ‘legalized’ medical cannabis (Bush 2.0 and his Drug Czar John Walters have not faired much better opposing state medical marijuana laws, save for prevailing in the US Supreme Court twice, in 2001 and 2005. Though, despite the ‘high’ court’s adverse rulings in these cases, the number of medical cannabis dispensaries, cooperatives and even automated medical cannabis machines have steadily increased. If reformers lost at SCOTUS, functionally, what did we actually lose? My contention is not much as the court’s rulings don’t reflect the current political, public health and economic realities facing the respectable minority of Americans who, regardless of their state’s laws, currently employ cannabis as a therapeutic, often with their physician’s recommendation. Reminds one of prior SCOTUS rulings in our nation’s past regarding race, labor laws, women’s rights, internment of Japanese Americans, gay and lesbian equality and sexual reproduction laws where society (and often technology) is leagues ahead of legislation, and ensuing appellate court action–both of which move at a glacial rate (unless of course there is multi-billion dollar, taxpayer-funded ‘bailout’ to be performed, then federal legislative and court action is performed post haste).
Emanuel’s new boss, and admitted past cannabis consumer President-elect Obama has repeatedly indicated that he does not support the use of federal law enforcement to harass medical cannabis dispensaries in states that have approved medical marijuana laws; Obama historically supported decriminalizing small amounts of cannabis (until the end of the contentious Democratic primaries this spring where Obama ‘flipped-flopped’ on the issue, and now claims to oppose the decriminalization of cannabis) and believes that far too many young people are ensnared in an unwieldy and expensive criminal justice system.
Rahm is politically smart if nothing else, so I hope that he’ll follow his boss’ lead in the area of criminal justice reforms. Also, to his credit, after voting years against the Hinchey-Rohrabacher Amendment, in 2007, as member of Congress from Illinois, Rahm voted in favor of holding back federal funding from law enforcement (read DEA) to raid or harass medical marijuana cultivators and dispensaries.
Interestingly, and I don’t think a coincidence, from 2005 forward Illinois’ state legislature has held hearings on medical marijuana and prominent (and compelling) cases like medical marijuana patient Brenda Kratovil have been featured all over the major news media in the state. My supposition is that Rahm, in fact a smart, keenly attuned politician, only came to support clipping the DEA’s wings regarding medical marijuana raids on the west coast after paying close political attention to how citizens in his state—along with its editorial boards and prominent columnists—readily support seriously ill, dying or sense threatened medical patients with a physician’s recommendation to access cannabis.
However, I fear that Rahm will continue to advocate for a politically cautious (I’d say paranoid) path regarding cannabis law reforms; is prone to engage in the most oft-trotted out, and easily deflated, myths and canards about cannabis; and will be too centrist and deferential to law enforcement for political expediency sake.
I just hope his boss and can talk him out of it. If not his new boss, maybe he should listen to his old boss, Bill Clinton, who has acknowledged that he was wrong to oppose harm reduction tenets: cannabis decriminalization and needle exchange efforts.
Attorney General Nominee Eric Holder
Much has been written and fretted about in the last few days about Obama’s pick to be the nation’s top law enforcement official, Attorney General nominee Eric Holder.
There are excellent and probing commentary penned regarding what prospects for criminal justice policy reforms the appointment of Holder portends.
“NORML has serious concerns about the choice of Eric Holder as the next Attorney General because he has a long history of opposing drug policy reforms, perceiving cannabis smoking by adults as a public nuisance worthy of constant harrassment, promoting violent governmental intervention into the private lives of citizens who consume cannabis, supporting mandatory minimum sentencing and so-called civil forfeiture laws.
His attraction to the myth of ‘fixing broken windows’ and using law enforcement to crack down on petty crimes will swell an already overburdened, bloated, expensive and failed government prohibition against otherwise law-abiding citizens who choose to consume cannabis.”
Vice-President Joe Biden
The pick of Joe Biden to be Obama’s running mate was my first sign of digestive tumult regarding the prospect of ‘CHANGE’ for drug policy reform. Suffice of to say here, because it was already said here, that Biden represents the decade and type of ‘liberal’ politician in the 1980s, who, rather than oppose the Reagan-inspired War on Some Drugs, decided to become an enthusiastic supporter and legislative booster. Biden was at the center of creating the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), mandatory minimum sentencing, civil forfeiture laws, the Rave Act, funding for DARE in public schools and the ad campaigns for the Partnership for a Drug Free America.
When asked in Connecticut this past May of pain management, Biden exhorted that “There’s got to be a better answer than marijuana.”
With Biden (and Emanuel) loyally by his side, from a purely political point of view, Obama (like a fellow Baby Boomer-type Bill Clinton before him) has wisely guarded against right wing attacks that he may be ‘soft on drugs’.
ONDCP Transition Team Director Dr. Don Vereen
As amazingly as it seems to most who come to know that the ONDCP is a cabinet level office (Thanks Joe Biden!), all cabinet level offices need an official transition team. So who is heading up the ONDCP transitional team? One of the principals is Don Vereen, a former ONDCP deputy director from 1998-2001.
Is Vereen a reform-minded health care professional and ready to embrace ‘change’?
Unlikely in my view as Vereen told the Psychiatric News in 1999 that he believed that doctors who prescribe marijuana as irresponsible and actually advocated arresting medical patients caught with marijuana. Yikes!
Vereen, like Emanuel (and so many other selective prohibitionists), has adopted the same rote cited rationalizations why cannabis can’t be legally controlled and taxed like thousands of pharmaceuticals currently: marijuana can’t be thought of as a therapeutic treatment because it’s usually smoked and because dosages are difficult to control.
Also, Vereen was on the losing side this past Election Day in Michigan where, in his capacity as director of Community Based Public Health at Univ. of Michigan, he claimed that a medical marijuana initiative ‘sends the wrong message to children’.
These folks sure do stick to the same talking points….I hope Vereen doesn’t pull a Cheney here and conclude that he is the best person for the job.
Former Congressman James Ramstad for Drug Czar?
As one of my favorite policy writers and commentators Maia Szalavitz aptly points out in her November 21 Huffington Post article regarding Ramstad:
On paper, Jim Ramstad — who is rumored to be Obama’s choice for drug czar — looks like the ideal man for the job . He’s a recovering alcoholic himself and a Congressman who championed legislation recently passed to provide equal insurance coverage for addictions and other mental illnesses.
Unfortunately, Ramstad may be a drug warrior in recovering person’s clothing. There is one issue that has consistently separated those who put science and saving lives in front of politics. That is needle exchange programs for addicts to prevent the spread of HIV and other blood borne illnesses.
Even President Clinton now says he was “wrong” when he ignored the recommendations of every scientific and medical organization in the world that has examined the question — from the AMA to the World Health Organization — and refused to lift the federal ban on funding.
Needle exchanges have been shown repeatedly to reduce HIV and contrary to the claims of opponents, they help addicts get into treatment.
But Bill Clinton had a drug czar — Barry McCaffrey — who said that needle exchange “sent the wrong message,” and would make him seem soft on drugs. McCaffrey fought against it and Clinton now says he “regrets” caving in to drug war politics.
Ramstad also — again, against the evidence – opposes medical marijuana and supports federal policing and prosecution of providers and patients in the states that have made it legal. These states have not seen the rise in teen drug use that opponents like the Congressman predicted.
The opposite, in fact, happened — as is the case in countries that have decriminalized marijuana like Holland. The UK’s “downgrading” of cannabis offense to a lesser status was also accompanied by a drop in use.
There’s simply no evidence that allowing sick people to get needed medication conflicts with helping addicts. Obama has said he does not support these prosecutions — will Ramstad push him in the wrong direction here, too? In an economic crisis, do we really want to spend federal time and money locking up medical marijuana providers and sick people?
That’s not change, President Obama — that’s more of the same. Don’t make the mistake that Bill Clinton did and install a drug czar who will ignore science and push dogma.