Pubdate: Sat, 08 Feb 2014
Source: Virgin Islands Daily News, The (VI)
Copyright: 2014 Virgin Islands Daily News
Author: Rob Hotakainen, McClatchyWashington Bureau


WASHINGTON - With more than half of all federal prisoners serving time
on drug charges , the Obama administration says it's time to free more
lowlevel drug offenders.

"This is where you can help," Deputy Attorney General James Cole told
the New York State Bar Association last week, urging lawyers to assist
prisoners in creating "well-prepared petitions" to apply for executive

But while the Justice Department promotes the plan, the Obama team is
making it clear that it has no interest in changing the federal law
that sends many nonviolent drug offenders to prison in the first
place: the one that outlaws marijuana.

On Tuesday, the president's deputy drug czar, Michael Botticelli, told
the House Subcommittee on Government Operations that while the
administration wants to help more marijuana offenders get treatment,
it won't move to legalize the drug. "This opposition is driven by
medical science and research," he said.

For critics, it's another example of the confusion that's passing for
marijuana policy these days in Washington. It's leading to rising
pressure on Obama and his advisers to deliver a consistent message.

Legalization opponents say the president should listen to his drug and
science experts, who warn that marijuana is highly addictive and a
threat to the developing brains of teenagers.

Pro-pot backers want the president to cancel marijuana's
classification as a Schedule 1 narcotic - the same category as heroin
and LSD. They note that 20 states and the District of Columbia have
approved the use of marijuana as medicine and that many studies have
shown that marijuana is far less addictive and unhealthy than other
drugs, including alcohol and tobacco.

"It is ludicrous, absurd, crazy to have marijuana at the same level as
heroin," Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee told Botticelli.
"Ask the late Philip Seymour Hoffman" - the actor who was found dead
Sunday in his New York apartment from an apparent heroin overdose -
"if you could. Nobody dies from marijuana; people die from heroin."

Democrats and Republicans alike are getting impatient with the mixed

Republican Rep. John Mica of Florida, the chairman of the
subcommittee, complained that the president and his team are "going in
different directions."

"Unfortunately, there's chaos as it relates to where we're going and
what our policy is. ... I call it a schizophrenic approach," said
Mica, who'd called the hearing. He said Congress wanted answers
because 50 federal agencies administered 76 programs aimed at drug
abuse and prevention.

Many, including Obama, say minorities are much more likely to get
locked up for violating marijuana laws because they're more likely to
be poor. A study last year showed that blacks are nearly four times as
likely as whites are to be arrested for marijuana.

Some say the racial disparity prompts questions of equal enforcement
after the Justice Department said it wouldn't block Washington state
and Colorado from allowing sales of marijuana for recreational use.

"One thing does concern me greatly: how in some states one can
purchase marijuana, and the people in my state and in my district are
getting arrested and serving sentences," said Democratic Rep. Elijah
Cummings of Maryland. "And it just seems to me there's something not
right about that." He said it created one standard for marijuana
purchased "on the streets" and another if it was bought "in the suites."

While Cole didn't specifically mention releasing marijuana offenders
in his speech, pot advocates hope they're included in the effort. Cole
said the administration wanted to focus on "nonviolent low-level drug
offenders" who weren't leaders of gangs or cartels but rather
first-time offenders and people without extensive criminal histories.

Much like his top lieutenants, Obama has been offering ammunition to
those on both sides of the debate.

In recent weeks, the president has argued that marijuana is no more
dangerous than alcohol and that it's important for legalization
experiments to proceed at the state level. But he's also said smoking
the drug is "a bad habit and a vice" and has worried about the
possibility of more abuse if it's legalized and big corporations start
"peddling marijuana." He made his comments to The New Yorker magazine
and CNN.

At the same time, top Drug Enforcement Administration officials have
bemoaned the flying of a hemp flag over the U.S. Capitol one day last
summer and said it would be reckless and irresponsible to legalize

Last month, Attorney General Eric Holder said he wanted to figure out
a way to allow pot stores in Washington state and Colorado to use
federal banking services - a clear violation of federal law.

Critics wonder how all this fits in with the health warnings from
Obama's drug czar and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which
blames a declining perception of risk for rising rates of pot usage
among teens.

"It appears, unfortunately, that the president may in fact be a major
contributor now to some of the declines that we see in the perception
of risk and what we're going to see in the future," Mica said.

Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon said Congress was to blame
for creating the drug-classification schedule that grouped marijuana
with heroin. He said pot prohibition had "failed spectacularly" and
that the drug should be fully legalized.

"It is outrageous that 8 million people have been arrested in the last
decade," he said.

The debate has divided Obama and his longtime liberal ally, former
Democratic Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, one of the nation's
top legalization opponents and the chairman of a group called Project
SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana).

Kennedy, a recovering addict, said Obama needed to give clearer
guidance on marijuana and that he took issue with the president
comparing pot to alcohol. He said Obama had championed "rigorous
science" in the past and needed to do so again, particularly in
warning children about the risks linked to using marijuana.

"Today's marijuana is far more potent than the marijuana the president
has acknowledged using during his teens and early adulthood," Kennedy

While Obama is taking heat from all sides, his backers want to see him
get more aggressive and take a leading role in the fight.

There's little sign of that happening: While the president vowed last
week in his State of the Union speech to use more executive orders to
bypass lawmakers, he suggested later that it won't apply to pot policy.

In an interview with Jake Tapper that aired last Friday on CNN, Obama
said deciding what constituted a Schedule 1 drug was "a job for Congress."

Tom Angell, the chairman of a pro-legalization group called Marijuana
Majority, accused the president of "passing the buck to Congress" and
not understanding his powers under the federal Controlled Substances

"If the president truly believes what he says about marijuana, he has
a moral imperative to make the law match up with his views and the
views of the majority of the American people, without delay," Angell

At the hearing, Democratic Rep. Danny Davis of Illinois noted that
Congress has effectively tied the hands of the drug czar's office,
prohibiting it from using federal money even to study

For now, Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the
pro-legalization Drug Policy Alliance in New York, said Obama deserved
credit for advancing the fast-moving debate and giving legalization
backers "the wind in the sails" to keep the momentum going.

"What's exceptional about Obama calling the Colorado and Washington
votes 'important' is that he effectively stepped out on this issue
before virtually any governor or senator had done so," Nadelmann said.

At Tuesday's hearing, however, Botticelli described legalization as a
"silver bullet solution," one the administration intends to avoid.

"The administration continues to oppose attempts to legalize marijuana
and other drugs," Botticelli said, but he promised that the Obama team
will conduct "an ongoing study of the drug and its consequences." 
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