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11 Enemies of Marijuana Legalization

From President Obama to NYC Mayor Bloomberg, the authorities are still bent on keeping pot illegal.
 
 
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In 1990, Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates told a Senate committee that people who smoked pot occasionally “ought to be taken out and shot.” That kind of fanaticism, which dominated the debate on drugs 20 years ago, seems to have faded. Today’s politicians are more likely to dismiss cannabis concerns as “not serious” than to rail against the demons of dope—but the powers that be are still bent on keeping pot illegal. U.S. cops bust an average of almost 100 people every hour for pot, and an array of think tanks and nonprofit groups continues to pump out prohibitionist propaganda.

Here are 11 of the worst—the most powerful and the most vehement.

1. DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart

A holdover from the Bush administration, Leonhart was formally appointed to head the Drug Enforcement Administration by Barack Obama in 2010. The antiprohibitionist movement strongly opposed her, citing the DEA’s raids on medical-marijuana growers in California—including one on a 69-year-old woman who had been the first grower to register with the Mendocino County Sheriff. 

As the DEA’s acting director in January 2009, she overruled a DEA administrative-law judge’s recommendation and denied the University of Massachusetts a license to cultivate marijuana for FDA-approved research. “This single act has blocked privately funded medical marijuana research in this country,” NORML head Allen St. Pierre said in July 2010.

Leonhart often carries hardline views to absurd extremes. In 2011, asked about the drug-cartel carnage in Mexico, she told the Washington Post that “It may seem contradictory, but the unfortunate level of violence is a sign of success in the fight against drugs,” because the cartels were fighting each other “like caged animals.” In June 2012, asked by Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) if crack, heroin and methamphetamine were worse for your health than marijuana, she repeatedly answered, “I believe all illegal drugs are bad.” Asked if opioid painkillers like OxyContin were more addictive than marijuana, she answered, “All illegal drugs in Schedule I are addictive.”

2. California’s U.S. Attorneys: Melinda Haag, Andre Birotte, Laura E. Duffy, and Benjamin B. Wagner

The state’s four federal prosecutors have led the campaign against medical marijuana. In October 2011, they began sending letters to dispensaries and their landlords, threatening to seize their buildings if the drug dealing on the premises didn’t cease. 

The Obama administration’s initial policy, at least on paper, was to prosecute only facilities that might be violating state laws. But early in 2011, Haag, whose district includes the Bay Area and the Emerald Triangle, significantly narrowed that. The federal government will not prosecute individual patients, she told Oakland City Attorney John Russo, but would go after “individuals and organizations that participate in unlawful manufacturing and distribution activity regarding marijuana, even if such activity is permitted under state law.” 

“Marijuana is illegal under federal law, and I felt like I had to do something to respond to those members of my community that don't support it,” she told San Francisco’s KQED-TV last March.

Haag has carried that out with raids on dispensaries, including the April raid on Richard Lee’s Oaksterdam University. In July, she filed forfeiture proceedings against the Harborside dispensaries in Oakland and San Jose, the state’s biggest. Her reason for going after Harborside was “the larger the operation, the greater the likelihood that there will be abuse of the state’s medical marijuana laws, and marijuana in the hands of individuals who do not have a demonstrated medical need.”

Duffy, the prosecutor for the San Diego area, threatened in October 2011 to bust newspapers and other media outlets that took dispensary ads, but retreated after a civil-liberties outcry. Last August, she warned officials in the suburb of Del Mar that if voters there approved an initiative to tax dispensaries, she might prosecute city employees who collected the taxes as drug traffickers.

3. California Narcotic Officers Association and its chief lobbyist, John Lovell, who also represents the California Police Chiefs Association

One leading California activist calls them “the most powerful obstacles to marijuana-law reform.” In 2010, when he campaigned against the Proposition 19 legalization initiative, John Lovell collected almost $400,000 from police groups. 

The CNOA opposes any relaxation of marijuana laws. Its position paper on medical marijuana declares that “There is no justification for using marijuana as a medicine” and anyone who believes otherwise has “been misled, by the well-financed and organized pro-drug legalization lobby.” It also opposes efforts to regulate dispensaries, with Lovell denouncing a bill to set statewide standards as “not regulation, this is open-ended permissiveness.”

In 2010, CNOA executive director Joe Stewart said that if Proposition 19 passed, “even inmates in prisons and county jails will be permitted to possess marijuana.”

4. Coalition For a Drug-Free California, headed by Paul Chabot

Based in Los Angeles’ Inland Empire suburbs, this is not the most powerful prohibitionist group, but it’s one of the looniest. Last April 20, Chabot told Current TV’s Cenk Uygur that alcohol “Prohibition actually worked. Drug usage decreased significantly.” He calls legalizing pot part of the “all-out far-left agenda.” 

In February, Chabot urged Californians to report dispensaries to the IRS, saying that the maximum reward of 30 percent of taxes collected had “better odds than hitting the lottery.” In 2011, he accused state Attorney General Kamala Harris of consorting with “drug money” and letting “our state fall to domestic marijuana cartels.” Apparently Harris had met with pro-legalization groups to discuss how the state should regulate medical marijuana.

One activist calls Chabot “by far the most colorfully extreme” prohibitionist in California. He claims to have “spent a lifetime battling evil and devising strategies to tear it apart.” A self-described former alcoholic and “marijuana addict” who was in rehab at 12, he runs a “leadership strategies” company that advises law-enforcement and security groups. In one report, it claimed that elements within Occupy Wall Street, “if not carefully monitored and mitigated… pose a significant threat to modern democracies.”

5. Drug Free America Foundation

The Drug Free America Foundation (DFAF) might be the nation’s most mean-spirited prohibitionist outfit. In 2004, when California medical-marijuana user Angel Raich was telling a press conference outside the Supreme Court about her brain tumor and other ailments, DFAF hecklers shouted “Druggie!” at her. In October 2011, when the California Medical Association endorsed legalizing pot, DFAF said, “they have transitioned from a medical group into a lapdog of the drug legalization lobby.”

Based in St. Petersburg, Florida, DFAF is headed by Calvina Fay and was founded by Betty Sembler and her husband, Mel, a rich strip-mall developer and a prominent fundraiser for Republicans from Ronald Reagan to Mitt Romney. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and his wife are on its advisory board.

An affiliate, the National Drug-Free Workplace Alliance, sells drug-testing programs to small businesses. Think being forced to pee in a jar violates your privacy? DFAF says other people’s right to a drug-free world is more important, and “if you don’t use illegal drugs, you have nothing to worry about.” DFAF is descended from Straight, Inc., a chain of “rehab” centers the Semblers opened in 1976. It claims that Straight “successfully treated more than 12,000 young people with drug addiction in eight cities nationally from Dallas to Boston.” 

Straight survivors tell different stories. A 15-year-old boy confined there from 1983-'85 for “occasional pot-smoking with my friends” called it “a destructive mind-control cult masquerading as a drug rehab,” where anyone resisting or even not enthusiastic enough “would be slammed to the floor and sat on for hours.” A 14-year-old girl who escaped was punished by being locked in a closet for two weeks and not allowed to go to the bathroom—so she had to sit in her “humble pants,” soiled with urine, feces and menstrual blood.

Despite numerous lawsuits and abuse complaints, the Semblers were politically connected enough to keep Straight open until 1993. However, they were never prosecuted. Instead, President George W. Bush named Mel Sembler ambassador to Italy. The $21 million he raised for Bush in 2000 trumped his inability to speak Italian. 

6. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette

Since taking office in January 2011, Scheutte has done his best to undermine Michigan’s 2008 medical-marijuana law. He has “frequently and publicly disparaged” the law and “has used his office to push for the most narrow, restrictive, and contrived interpretations possible,” the Rev. Steven B. Thompson of Michigan NORML wrote in September 2011.

Scheutte’s first move upon taking office was agreeing to give the DEA the medical records of seven patients from dispensaries in Lansing. State health-department workers had refused to turn them over, as the medical-marijuana law makes it a misdemeanor to release confidential patient records, but Scheutte agreed to go along if the workers were immunized against prosecution. 

In August 2011, he won a state court ruling that banned the sale of medical marijuana. Almost all of the state’s dispensaries closed after that. That November, he issued an opinion stating that despite state law, police who seized medical marijuana from registered patients or caregivers did not have to return it, because pot was illegal under federal law. He also prosecuted four Lansing dispensary workers for selling cannabis to undercover officers who got their applications approved by a doctor. 

That fall, he held a series of seminars on how to implement the law—with no patients or caregivers invited. The seminars featured a PowerPoint presentation that said pot sold for $700 to $2,000 an ounce in the Midwest.

Scheutte denounces the idea of legalizing marijuana, calling it “easy access for young people to get hooked on drugs.” Yet in 1987, after he was elected to Congress, he admitted that he’d inhaled while a college student in the 1970s. In 2008, he told a radio interviewer that contrasting his past with his claim that pot was a “gateway drug” was “a low blow.”

7. Florida Gov. Rick Scott

In 2011, Scott issued an executive order requiring state agencies to drug-test workers at random and all job applicants. He also backed a law forcing people receiving public assistance to be tested. A spokesperson for the governor’s office said it was important to ensure that people getting state money “not spend it on illegal drugs.” Some scurrilous scandalmongers noted that a large chunk of Scott’s $218 million fortune came from owning a chain of clinics that did drug testing. He sold his shares a few weeks later.

The welfare-testing program lasted four months before a federal judge stopped it as an unconstitutional search. Only 108 of the more than 4,000 people tested came up positive for drugs, according to the Miami Herald, and most of those were for pot. (Despite the stereotypes, surveys have found that people on public assistance use drugs at a lower rate than others.) With the tests $35 each and the state reimbursing people who came up negative, the program cost almost $120,000.

Scott is no stranger to frauds involving public benefits. In 1997, he resigned as CEO of Columbia/HCA, a for-profit hospital chain, while the company was under federal investigation for defrauding Medicare. It was convicted of 14 felonies and fined $1.7 billion. 

8. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly

Since Bloomberg took office in 2002, these two have continued Rudolph Giuliani’s policy of making New York the pot-bust capital of the world, with more than 400,000 marijuana-possession arrests. The number of petty pot busts passed 50,000 in 2010 and 2011, enough to pack every seat in Yankee Stadium. More than 85 percent of the people popped were black or Latino.

Many of these arrests are likely illegal. When police find marijuana in a search or by asking a suspect to empty their pockets, they often report that the pot was “in public view,” raising the offense from a decriminalized $100 fine to a misdemeanor. After protests earlier this year, Bloomberg endorsed a short-lived effort to decriminalize possession in public view. It was most likely a publicity stunt to deflect criticism of the pot busts—and of Kelly’s policy of having cops stop and frisk several hundred thousand people a year, mostly young black and Latino men not charged with a crime.

When Bloomberg was first running for mayor, he was asked if he’d ever smoked pot. “You bet I did—and I enjoyed it,” he answered. The billionaire nicknamed “Pharaoh” has never explained why he supports busting so many people, but has implied that harassing young black and Latino men is essential to control crime.

9. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chair of House Judiciary Committee

In 2011, he refused to hold hearings on the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act, a bill sponsored by Reps. Barney Frank (D-MA) and Ron Paul (R-TX) that would have ended the federal marijuana prohibition by removing cannabis from the list of “controlled substances.” He said that would “only lead to millions more Americans becoming addicted to drugs and greater profits for drug cartels who fund violence along the U.S.-Mexico border.” Instead, he told the San Antonio Express-News, “we should strengthen enforcement of federal drug laws to protect Americans from the devastating effects of drug use.” 

In 2010, he sent Attorney General Eric Holder a letter urging him to prosecute medical-marijuana dispensaries in states where it is legal. (Well, he got his wish.) In interviews, he criticized the Obama administration for “encouraging the use of marijuana” and “actually directing federal prosecutors not to enforce federal law.” He also opposed reducing federal mandatory-minimum sentences for crack to make them closer to those for cocaine.

Rep. Smith’s distaste for intoxicants, however, doesn’t extend to one legal drug. As of August 2012, he had received $44,250 in contributions from sources in the beer, liquor and wine industries. In 2010, he got $33,200.

10. President Barack Obama

 Like many of us who grew up in the 1970s, Barack Obama enjoyed herb, in his case Hawaiian “choom” and “pakalolo.” He also saw “the difference that color and money made,” as when his friend Pablo got busted. But like so many other politicians, Obama’s stance changed as he pursued higher office. His administration’s official line is that “the word ‘legalization’ is not in our vocabulary.” In 2010, when California was voting on an initiative to allow taxed and regulated pot sales, Attorney General Eric Holder said he would “vigorously enforce” federal marijuana laws if the proposition passed.

Obama won’t come out and say why he thinks pot should stay illegal. Instead, he acts as if people who want to legalize it are silly and frivolous, as when “will you consider legalizing marijuana” became the most popular question on his Web site while he was preparing to take office. He promised that his administration would not molest medical-marijuana providers who complied with state laws, but the Justice Department has raided scores of dispensaries and arrested their operators, and forced others to close down with threats of forfeiture. The IRS too has gone after dispensaries, telling them that because cannabis is illegal, they can’t count its cost as a business expense. 

Perhaps the most damning fact about Barack Obama is that his administration has indicted more than 100 people for distributing medical marijuana—and not prosecuted a single major Wall Street executive for fraud.

11. Mitt Romney

The Republican presidential candidate unequivocally believes pot should stay illegal. His stance might be summed up as the four Cs: claptrap, callousness, contempt, and cluelessness.

Romney spouts the usual gateway-drug and evil-pusher claptrap. “Marijuana is the entry drug for people trying to get kids hooked on drugs,” he said in New Hampshire in 2007.

He is as callous about medical marijuana as he was toward the workers who lost their jobs in his Bain Capital bust-out scams. When Clayton Holton, a wheelchair-bound muscular dystrophy patient, said medical marijuana had saved his life, Romney told him he could get a prescription for synthetic forms of marijuana. Holton said synthetic marijuana made him throw up, and asked, “Will you arrest me and my doctors if I get medical marijuana?” Romney replied, “I'm not in favor of medical marijuana,” turned his back, and walked away.

Last May, when a Colorado TV reporter asked him about medical marijuana, Romney sneered contemptuously, “Aren’t there issues of significance that you’d like to talk about?” 

Later, he tried to explain himself by saying it’s a “state issue.” Well… not exactly. Anyone who’s not clueless about it knows that the biggest problem for states legalizing medical marijuana is that cannabis is still a crime under federal law. 

The only good thing you can say about Romney in comparison to Obama is that at least he’s not a hypocrite. His admitted drug history is one beer.

This article originally appeared in SKUNK Magazine.

Steven Wishnia is a New York-based journalist and musician. He is the author of the novel "When the Drumming Stops" (Manic D Press), "Exit 25 Utopia," and "The Cannabis Companion."