Holder To Announce New Drug Policy?

[ Posted Thursday, August 8th, 2013 – 17:25 UTC ]

Attorney General Eric Holder seems to be signaling that he'll soon be announcing major changes in the federal government's policies on illegal drugs. If this turns out to be true, it will indeed be a welcome change in the approach the Justice Department has taken under President Barack Obama. Obama is now the third president to have admitted smoking marijuana before he entered office (well, OK, the second one who admitted inhaling, technically, but still...), so any changes are indeed long overdue.

The focus of Holder's comments in a recent interview seemed to be on the vast number of people who are in federal prison on drug charges. This is an important aspect of the War On Drugs which desperately needs changing, as is brutally shown in this simple chart. When First Lady Nancy Reagan decided to make drugs her "pet issue," the War On Drugs went into overdrive. The results are plain to see, as the chart clearly shows. Two big parts of this problem were the "mandatory minimum" laws Congress passed back then, and the 500-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine (which are chemically the same thing, in essence). The cocaine problem was lessened by Obama in his first term, but not completely equalized. The mandatory minimum problem seems to be what Holder may announce changes to, at least from reading between the lines of his recent interview.

This is all well and good. Any steps the federal government takes away from its own addiction to a senseless "war" on its own citizens has to be seen as a good one, at this point. But there are two festering issues which Holder really also should address.

The first is the absolute insanity of keeping marijuana as a "Schedule I dangerous controlled substance." Here are the legal definitions of what constitutes a Schedule I drug and a Schedule II drug, from the Controlled Substances Act:

(1) Schedule I.
    (A) The drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse.
    (B) The drug or other substance has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.
    (C) There is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.

(2) Schedule II.
    (A) The drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse.
    (B) The drug or other substance has a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States or a currently accepted medical use with severe restrictions.
    (C) Abuse of the drug or other substances may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence.

Note that change in item (B). Currently, four out of ten of the United States allow marijuana to be used as medicine. Forty percent -- plus the District of Columbia itself (which is indeed ironic, being a federal enclave). The federal government even still provides marijuana to a handful of people who were in a program in the 1970s and 1980s to treat glaucoma. So who in their right mind could argue that marijuana still "has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States"?

The good news here is that Eric Holder can -- on his own, without the input of Congress or the president -- change this with the stroke of a pen. Again, from the language of the Act: "the Attorney General may by rule ... transfer between such schedules any drug or other substance...." Such readjustments are written into the law, at the sole discretion of the Attorney General. Which means Eric Holder could move marijuana to the same legal category that now includes cocaine, crystal meth, opium, and PCP -- all drugs which (unlike marijuana, currently) are deemed to be Schedule II with "currently accepted medical use in treatment." And he wouldn't have to ask anyone's permission to do so.

Moving marijuana to Schedule II would immediately change the dynamic in the states which do allow medicinal marijuana. The Justice Department could stop wasting everyone's time with their raids and Draconian tactics, and let the marketplace work as the states intended. Currently, anyone providing marijuana in these states is at risk of arrest and imprisonment for doing so -- even though their state's laws allow it. This risk increases exponentially if you publicly speak out on the issue, or if you successfully make money doing so. The Justice Department gets very, very annoyed at those who are successful at the business of providing marijuana to patients, and it hunts them down relentlessly. But, after all, if profit weren't a motive for prescription drugs, would companies like Pfizer even exist?

By moving marijuana to Schedule II, this entire War On Weed could be ended. Marijuana growers who follow state law could then be treated as any other legal business in America, meaning they could legally open a bank account, deduct their business expenses on their taxes, rent a building without their landlord being threatened with jail time, and not have to worry about being locked up for years -- none of which is true today. Again, Holder could usher in all these changes simply by signing a single document.

The final policy which also demands attention by Eric Holder is how the federal government is going to react to the states of Washington and Colorado when their legal recreational marijuana marketplaces are slated to open (which will take place mere months from now). The voters in these two states passed referenda to legalize recreational marijuana nine months ago, and we have not heard a single peep from Holder since on how the Justice Department is going to react. The two states made a good-faith effort to work with Holder on the issue of implementation and regulation, and Holder promised the Justice Department was going to "study" the issue and then announce their plans. They have had nine months to do so, meaning that an announcement on the issue would indeed be timely.

Holder has a range of options, of course. He could send every Drug Enforcement Agency officer to the two states, and attempt to arrest every single person who buys marijuana. Federal laws would back him up, if he chose this route. Or he could harass the stores selling it, or the growers. Or he could take a more enlightened approach and let the state "laboratories of democracy" perform their legalization experiment without interference. Or anything in between, really.

So far, Eric Holder has given no indication whatsoever which option he's even leaning toward. But the clock is ticking, and time is running out. No matter which path he chooses for the Justice Department to take, he really owes the voters in Colorado and Washington the common courtesy of publicly stating what that path will be.

Eric Holder is giving a speech next week, which may be the venue for his announcement on any changes to federal drug policy. President Obama just announced he's giving a press conference tomorrow. I will be very interested to see if any intrepid reporter asks the president about the issue in his presser, and I will also be very interested to hear what Eric Holder has to say about federal drug policy. How about some "change we can believe in," guys?

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


One Comment on “Holder To Announce New Drug Policy?”

  1. [1] 
    dsws wrote:

    The federal government even still provides marijuana to a handful of people who were in a program in the 1970s and 1980s to treat glaucoma.

    From the fact that a study allowed participants to continue receiving an experimental medication, it does not follow that the medication is accepted. It may be that a medication is unacceptably dangerous, but with the ill effects usually appearing relatively quickly, so that people who are on it can stay on it. It may be that a condition requires careful monitoring to stabilize it, and is badly destabilized by any changes in medication -- even the removal of a medication that in itself is entirely harmful. It may be that a condition responds well to placebo effects, which are lost when treatment is changed.

    I can't say whether any of those apply to glaucoma. But I can say that "don't study that, or you'll have to consider it accepted" is a lousy policy.

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