Pubdate: Mon, 26 Nov 2001
Source: National Review (US)
Copyright: 2001 National Review
Authors: Mike Krause, and Dave Kopel
Note: Kopel is of the Independence Institute --


Throughout the federal government, agency after agency is shifting 
priorities in order to fight the war on terrorism. Except, apparently, the 
Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). If you go to the "What's New" page on the 
DEA website, you'll find a lot of what's old. Almost nothing on the site 
relates to counterterrorism, other than a country report on Afghanistan. 
Yet testifying before Congress on October 17, 2001, Administrator Asa 
Hutchinson said:

I recently testified before Congress regarding the connection between 
international drug trafficking and terrorism. This connection defines the 
deadly, symbiotic relationship between the illegal drug trade and 
international terrorism. The degree to which profits from the drug trade 
are directed to finance terrorist activities is of paramount concern to our 
nation and the DEA.

Given this "paramount concern," one might expect the website to tout 
announcements from the DEA that the agency's new top priority would be 
attacking drug-trafficking networks with ties to terrorist organizations. 
Opium from Afghanistan, long tolerated by the Taliban in exchange for "tax" 
payments from opium distributors, would seem to be a logical number-one target.

Yet amazingly, the biggest news out of the DEA since September 11 has been 
a massive new crackdown on drug users whom we know not to be associated 
with terrorist suppliers: medical-marijuana users.

In California, the DEA has been seizing the medical records of 
medical-marijuana patients and destroying the marijuana gardens of AIDS and 
cancer victims. Since September, the DEA has raided and uprooted a 
marijuana garden in Ventura County, raided and seized the patient records 
of a medical research facility in El Dorado County, and shut down the Los 
Angeles Cannabis Resource Center in West Hollywood. (There, DEA agents 
seized some 400 marijuana plants, and the medical files of several thousand 
current and former patients. They even took the mix the center used to make 
marijuana brownies.)

The issue isn't whether the DEA has the legal power to act against 
medical-marijuana distribution centers. In United States v. Oakland 
Cannabis Buyers Cooperative, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the 
Controlled Substances Act of 1970 does not allow marijuana cooperatives to 
raise a "necessity" defense in federal court, at least not in a context in 
which no individual's medical needs were before the court.

Rather, the issue is whether going after medical marijuana is a wise use of 
limited resources, especially in a Republican administration  and very 
especially when we're in a real war, rather than just trying to reduce some 
domestic problem like poverty or inflation or drugs and calling it a "war."

Nine states have passed medical-marijuana initiatives allowing the 
possession and use of marijuana for medical purposes. The laws were passed 
by voter initiative in Alaska, California, Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, 
Oregon, Maine, and Washington, and by the legislature in Hawaii. These 
state laws certainly do not legalize the sale of marijuana across state 
lines, or even sale within the state to people without medical needs.

Republican Bob Dole ran for President in 1996 carrying the Tenth Amendment 
in his pocket; Republican President Bush won the 2000 election with similar 
promises to respect federalism. Candidate Bush, in keeping with his 
campaign themes of "compassionate conservatism" and "trusting the people 
more than the government," stated that while he opposes the use of medical 
marijuana, he believed that states ought to be able to decide differently. 
Speaking in Seattle in October 1999, the future president said, "I believe 
each state can choose that decision as they so choose."

Indeed, the medical-marijuana issue should be a poster child for 
federalism. In California, Prop. 215, the Compassionate Use Act, was openly 
and hotly debated, voted on in a statewide referendum, and passed by a 
landslide. In fact, more Californians voted in favor of medical marijuana 
than voted for Bill Clinton (who would later threaten to prosecute any 
doctor who prescribed it). In West Hollywood, where the recent raid took 
place, close relationships were established between the cannabis-club 
operators and state and local government officials, to ensure the integrity 
of the program and that the law was obeyed. State supervision included 
quarterly reviews of doctors' prescriptions, and the issuance of patient ID 
cards in cooperation with the sheriff's office.

Rep. Barney Frank (D., Mass.) has introduced the States Rights for Medical 
Marijuana Act, which would simply allow the states to implement medical 
marijuana policy, without interference from the federal government. Not too 
long ago, northeastern liberal Democrats were claiming that "states' 
rights" was a code word for racism. Now that an impeccably liberal 
Democrat, with many Democratic (and a few Republican) cosponsors, is 
pushing a bill with "states' rights" in its very title, astute Republican 
leaders would seize the chance to move the bill through committee and onto 
the floor  thus ending Democrats' ability to rail against "states' rights" 
Republicans. Pushing the "States Rights" bill would also give Republicans a 
chance to demonstrate their compassion on health care  without having to 
spend a cent, write a word of new regulations, or hire a single additional 
bureaucrat. But foolishly, the Republican leadership has let the States 
Rights bill languish in committee without a hearing.

In any rational assessment of federal drug-enforcement priorities, 
doctor-supervised use of medical marijuana would land at the bottom of the 
list. There are no international or interstate sales, thus making the issue 
inappropriate for federal control under Congress's power to regulate 
international or interstate commerce. There are no sales to children. The 
only people who get the marijuana are adults with a demonstrated medical 
need. Even if one believes all claims of drug "warriors" about the harms of 
marijuana, the drug remains much less harmful than other, widely used 
illegal drugs, particularly cocaine and opiates. In contrast to, say, 
crackheads and junkies who rob in order to support their habit, 
medical-marijuana users are about the least dangerous demographic in 
America  consisting of people in wheelchairs, multiple sclerosis patients, 
and the like. The distribution of medical marijuana does not involve 
organized crime and has absolutely no connection to terrorism.

In August, Mr. Hutchinson told the Washington Post he would enforce the 
federal ban because he wanted to "send the right signal" on medical 
marijuana. In other words, the best explanation of the DEA's war on medical 
marijuana is symbolism.

Consider House Speaker Dennis Hastert's Speaker News:

The recent dialogue on so-called 'medical marijuana' sends an ambivalent 
message to our kids about the dangers of marijuana. The continued public 
debate over what, if any, medical benefits some compounds found in 
marijuana may have makes it harder to convince our kids that drug use ends 
dreams and ruins lives. The way some have constructed this debate sends the 
wrong signal to our kids about drug use.

In other words, they're doing it for the children. But the claim that we 
have to take medical marijuana away from adult cancer patients in order to 
frighten healthy 17-year-olds into abstinence is nonsense. Current federal 
laws allows medical use of morphine with a doctor's prescription; neither 
the DEA nor the seeker claim that this limited medical exception prevents 
society from convincing children not to use morphine or other opiates 
recreationally. Indeed, the Controlled Substances Act contains (on 
schedules II, III, and IV) literally hundreds of drugs for which medical 
use is allowed, with a prescription, but for which non-medical use is banned.

Moreover, even if, for some reason, it is impossible to communicate the 
same message (medical use is all right; recreational use is not) about 
medical marijuana that is communicated about hundreds of other drugs, it is 
wrong to kill people simply for the sake of better communications. In 
Afghanistan, the U.S. government has been so humanitarian in trying to 
avoid "collateral damage" civilian casualties that the U.S. has foregone 
many opportunities to bomb buildings known to contain al Qaeda or Taliban 

If we're that careful not to kill foreign civilians, even for the supremely 
important objective of killing enemy leaders, then surely we ought not to 
kill American citizens who are AIDS or cancer patients, and who can't keep 
their medicine down without the anti-nausea effect of medical marijuana  
even if such deaths would improve the "message" that the federal government 
sends to teenagers. (For the story of one death caused by federal 
prosecutors stopping a patient from being able to stop vomiting, see 
William F. Buckley's obituary of Peter McWilliams in the July 17, 2000, 
National Review.)

Moreover, the seizure of the medical records of thousands of patients  who 
registered themselves in compliance with state law, in good faith  is an 
act of intimidation, meant to strike fear in the hearts of the sick that 
they will be targeted next for enforcement action. (The feds had better 
start looking for some prisons that are wheelchair-accessible.) In 
addition, according to John Duran, legal counsel for the Cannabis Club, the 
records of the club's donors and Prop. 215 supporters were also seized  a 
pure act of political bullying.

What reason would any of the patients have to trust the government again? 
Their alternatives now consist of either foregoing the use of marijuana and 
suffering the health consequences  or else skirting the law entirely and 
becoming criminals by growing their own, or finding a street dealer.

President Bush has asked all Americans to be eyes and ears for the federal 
government, keeping watch for suspicious activity related to terrorism. Yet 
when the federal government deliberately frightens sick people, or people 
who have lawfully participated in a political campaign, how can these 
people be expected to trust the government?

On November 8, the Bush administration announced a dramatic restructuring 
of federal law enforcement. According to Attorney General Ashcroft, "We 
cannot do everything we once did because lives depend on us doing a few 
things very well." Pursuant to this change, FBI agents once assigned to 
drug cases have been reassigned to counterterrorism.

Similarly, Coast Guard boats that were once used in the drug war have now 
been assigned to protecting our coasts from terrorists.

According to DEA Administrator Hutchinson, "We've tried to make up the 
slack." Does making up slack mean less attention to complex cases, and more 
enforcement against easy marks like medical-marijuana providers, who 
operate out in the open and in cooperation with local authorities? Why were 
30 DEA agents used on the October 25 "raid" on the Los Angeles Cannabis 
Resource Center (whose nearly 1,000 patients are mostly AIDS victims)? 
Wouldn't those 30 agents be better employed in going after heroin rings 
connected to al Qaeda and the Taliban? A Justice Department spokesperson 
said: "The recent enforcement is indicative that we have not lost our 
priorities in other areas since September 11." Perhaps it's time to 
reallocate some DEA resources, and prioritize counterterrorism.

In the last decade, the number of FBI agents has remained relatively 
stable, at around 11,000. Yet in addition to being having the lead on 
counterterrorism and organized crime, along with substantial 
responsibilities on the related issue of money laundering, the FBI has been 
tasked with chasing deadbeat dads, carjackings, student-loan fraud, housing 
discrimination, and guarding access to abortion clinics. These latter 
matters are not unimportant, but all could easily be left in the hands of 
state or local law enforcement.

Over the last decade, the DEA's budget has nearly doubled to $1.66 billion 
and its manpower has increased by roughly 75 percent, to over 4,600 special 
agents and over 9,000 total employees, with 78 offices in 56 different 

There is no doubt that many DEA agents out there are placing themselves in 
harm's way by chasing real criminals. But in the midst of the largest 
criminal investigation in American history, and of the drastic 
restructuring of the priorities of Justice Department agencies, the DEA 
finds itself in the comfortable position of being able to allocate highly 
trained, well-armed federal agents to targeting the sick and their 
medical-marijuana providers.

Can't the DEA or Congress find a better way to use the DEA's resources  
for instance, to fight terrorism?
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MAP posted-by: Keith Brilhart