Pubdate: Thu, 23 Jan 2014
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 2014 Chicago Tribune Company
Author: Steve Chapman


The American people once elected a president who favored 
decriminalizing marijuana. Jimmy Carter endorsed the change in 1976 
as a candidate and again after taking office. Nothing happened, and 
more decades have been wasted in the war on cannabis and other drugs.

Now we have a president who, like his two immediate predecessors, got 
baked in his youth yet has declined to push for any major change in 
federal drug laws. Barack Obama, however, has indicated at least some 
willingness to dial back prohibition.

In a recent interview with The New Yorker, the president said he 
regards smoking weed "as a bad habit and a vice" but added, "I don't 
think it is more dangerous than alcohol." Is it less dangerous than 
alcohol? Yes, "in terms of its impact on the individual consumer," Obama said.

He also noted the disparity of enforcement: "Middle-class kids don't 
get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do." Asked about 
legalization, he responded mildly that its advocates "are probably 
overstating the case." That's a notable departure from 2009, when he 
mocked a question about it during a video town hall meeting.

But a change of tone would be cold comfort without a change of 
policy. In some significant ways, Obama has moved away from the 
intolerant mindset that has afflicted every recent president going 
back to Ronald Reagan.

The most important surprise is his stance toward the legalization 
experiments in Colorado and Washington. When the issue was placed on 
the ballot, White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske publicly rejected 
the idea but didn't make a big deal of it. Bill Piper, director of 
national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, told me, "His silence 
on those measures in 2012 was noticeable."

More important is what the administration did after they passed: It backed off.

The Justice Department could have instructed federal prosecutors to 
go after marijuana possession and sales, to dramatize the president's 
stern opposition. Instead, it instructed them to let the states go 
their own way, focusing federal enforcement on preventing major drug 
trafficking and sales to minors.

Had the initiatives passed under George W. Bush, the enforcement 
policy would have been less indulgent.

Not standing in the way of states trying legalization is a big deal. 
It shows a somewhat open mind about the wisdom of the status quo and 
the practical effects of liberalization. Not since Carter was in the 
White House has an administration been willing to concede that there 
may be alternatives to the drug war.

If Obama really believes what he says, though, merely doing nothing 
is not quite enough. Getting any change in federal law through 
Congress is utterly beyond hope - even with 58 percent of Americans 
now favoring legalization of cannabis, according to Gallup. But he 
has some presidential authority that, unlike most of his powers, is 
just sitting there collecting dust.

The most obvious thing he could do is to remove the barriers to 
scientific research on the therapeutic use of marijuana.

Anyone who wants to do such studies now faces two major hurdles: 
getting cannabis from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the only 
approved source, and getting permission from the Drug Enforcement 
Administration and other agencies with a history of resistance.

Scientists say the federal weed is not good enough to be used in 
clinical studies. So Lyle Craker, a professor of plant sciences at 
the University of Massachusetts Amherst, applied in 2001 for 
permission to cultivate his own supply for medical research.

In 2007, a federal administrative law judge ruled that allowing 
Craker to grow it "would be in the public interest." DEA, however, refused.

Craker is still waiting, 13 years later. So are patients who could 
benefit from more information about whether cannabis can cure them - 
or, for that matter, harm them.

Obama could order the DEA to let him proceed.

He also could insist that the agency license other private production 
of cannabis for research. He could scrap the requirement that the 
Public Health Service approve all privately funded research on 
marijuana - a rule that, as Rick Doblin of the Multidisciplinary 
Association for Psychedelic Studies notes, doesn't apply to other 
drugs, including LSD and Ecstasy.

The president could make changes like these with zero political risk. 
No one expects him to sue for peace in the war on drugs. But he's 
begun a retreat that shouldn't stop now.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom