Paul Armentano: New Administration, Same Old Failed Marijuana Policies

On Tuesday September 21, Texas Rep. Lamar Smith tried scoring political points by claiming that the Barack Obama administration is ‘soft’ on marijuana. Here’s a reality check.

Law enforcement officials prosecuted a near-record 858,408 persons for violating marijuana laws in 2009 – the first year of the Obama presidency. That total is the second highest annual number of pot prosecutions ever recorded in the United States.

According to the arrest data, made public last week by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, some 88 percent (758,593 Americans) of those charged with marijuana violations were prosecuted for possession only. The remaining 99,815 individuals were charged with “sale/manufacture,” a category that includes virtually all cultivation offenses.

Does any rational person really think that arresting and prosecuting nearly one million Americans annually for their use of a substance that is objectively safer than alcohol exemplifies a ‘soft’ – or better yet, sound – public policy?

Rep. Smith further claims that the administration has abdicated the enforcement of federal drug laws in the fourteen states that have legalized the physician-supervised use of marijuana since 1996. Not so. Despite promises from the U.S. Attorney General to respect the laws of these 14 states, the September 21 edition of DC’s Daily Caller reports that just the opposite is taking place.

In an article entitled, “DEA, DOJ stay mum on medical marijuana raids,” reporter Mike Riggs states: “Despite campaign promises to the contrary, the Department of Justice under President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder hasn’t stopped raiding marijuana dispensaries operating in states where sale of the drug is legal for medical purposes. But the DOJ has demonstrated one marked change now that it’s under Democratic control: The department has stopped publicizing medical marijuana raids, both by requesting that more cases be sealed under court order and by refusing to distribute press releases.”

The story goes on to cite details of over a dozen recent federal raids of medical marijuana providers in California, Colorado, Michigan, and Nevada – all states that have approved the cultivation and possession of medical marijuana. In the Colorado case, where the defendant is facing his potential ‘third strike’ if convicted of violating federal marijuana cultivation laws, federal prosecutors have refused to allow the October 19 2009 DOJ memo – which states, in part, that the administration “should not focus federal resources in your States on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana” – as evidence at trial. Regarding the feds’ targeting and prosecution of his client, Denver attorney Joseph Saint-Veltri told the Washington Post this week, “The federal government has condoned all this going on.”

Of course, if the stricter enforcement of marijuana laws – as Rep. Lamar advocates – was really the solution to curbing Americans’ appetite for pot, then how does one explain this? Since 1965, police have arrested over 21 million Americans for violating marijuana laws; yet according to the World Health Organization, more Americans consume marijuana than do citizens of any other country in the world.

Congress criminalized the personal use of cannabis in 1937 – and many states, like California and Massachusetts, initially did so decades earlier – yet today, nearly one out of two Americans admit to having used the drug (including our present and two most recent U.S. Presidents), and an estimated ten percent of citizens admit to consuming it regularly. Does Rep. Smith really think that America would be a better place if all of these individuals were arrested, prosecuted, and jailed for their use of a non-toxic herb that was once described by a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration administrative law judge as “one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man?”

Rather than scapegoating the new administration, which has done little to alter longstanding U.S. marijuana policy, Rep. Smith ought to reconsider the past 40 years of failed drug war policies – which as the Associated Press reported in March, have cost Americans $1 trillion in taxpayers’ dollars, yet “has failed to meet any of its goals.”

This article appeared originally in Truthout.

Paul Armentano is co-author of Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People To Drink?

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