Commentary

Change and Hope on Drug Policy?

Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Obama Justice Department would end federal raids on medical marijuana dispensaries. That’s a welcome change from the Bush administration’s policy, which violated constitutional principle and common decency.

Bush claimed to respect federalism, but his Justice Department repeatedly brought the heavy hand of the law down on desperately sick people who, with the approval of their state governments, used marijuana to ease their pain.

Calling off the raids was the right thing to do, and—for a liberal president vulnerable to the charge of being “soft on drugs”—a politically courageous move (“the Audacity of Dope”?).

Thousands of Americans use marijuana to treat glaucoma, cancer, and other diseases. The federal government has no business coming between them and their doctors. Cancer survivor Richard Brookhiser made that clear when he testified before Congress in 2006.

We’re still far away from calling an end to our foolish and destructive War on Drugs, but the debate finally seems to be headed in the right direction. ”

Brookhiser, a staid senior editor at National Review, hardly resembles the stereotypical pot smoker. But in 1992, he contracted a particularly virulent form of cancer and found that only marijuana would allow him to hold down enough food to survive the treatment.

“God forbid that anyone in this room should ever need chemotherapy,” Brookhiser testified, but if you do, “Let me assure you that whatever you think now, or however you vote, if that moment comes to you, you will turn to marijuana. Extend that liberty to your fellow citizens.”

In recent years, 13 states have done just that. After California passed the Compassionate Use Act in 1996, the Clinton administration commissioned a comprehensive study on medical marijuana.

That report came out 10 years ago this month, and it indicated that the drug had shown promise as a treatment “for symptoms such as pain relief, control of nausea, and vomiting.” The scandal-scarred Clinton worried that his opponents might portray his administration as a klatch of licentious Baby Boomers, so he wasn’t entirely happy with the report’s result. His administration sued medical marijuana dispensaries, and tried to revoke the licenses of doctors who prescribed the drug.

President Bush was more aggressive still. In the case of Gonzales v. Raich, the Bush Justice Department insisted that, regardless of what California’s voters had decided, it had every right to deny use of the drug to a woman with an inoperable brain tumor.

In the process, the Bush team undermined the core constitutional principle that federal power is limited. As Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in his Raich dissent, “If Congress can regulate this under the Commerce Clause, then it can regulate virtually anything—and the Federal Government is no longer one of limited and enumerated powers.”

Holder made clear last Wednesday that the Obama administration won’t pursue cases like Raich. That’s good news, but the new policy doesn’t go nearly far enough. There’s no good reason to wage war against people who use marijuana as medicine, but neither is there any reason to prosecute recreational users. It’s a disgrace that, in the 21st century, in a free country, we continue to send people to prison for using or selling the drug.

Survey data tell us that some 40 percent of Americans have tried pot. Any policy that suggests that 100 million Americans are criminals needs rethinking. Among them are a host of political elites who support the drug war, at least tacitly: Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, and Barack Obama himself.

Obama’s no legalizer. But his early moves—including the appointment of a moderate as drug czar—suggest that he’s much less hawkish than his predecessors. There are even some signs of new thinking on Capitol Hill.

Last year Reps. Barney Frank (D-MA) and Ron Paul (R-TX) cosponsored a bill to decriminalize possession of marijuana. Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) recently took to the pages of the Washington Post to lament the fact that the United States locks up more people per capita than any other country in the world—many of them nonviolent drug offenders.

We’re still far away from calling an end to our foolish and destructive War on Drugs, but the debate finally seems to be headed in the right direction. The prospects for drug policy reform look better than they have for decades.

Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and author of The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power.