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Could Obama's Pro-Marijuana Commerce Secretary Spell a Golden Era for Pot Reform?

Bill Richardson believes we need to "rethink and decriminalize" our cannabis laws. Now that he's in office, he has the chance to achieve it.
 
 
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December has been an interesting month for marijuana, or cannabis as it is known to scientists and all too few others. To kick off the month, the U.S. Supreme Court decided against reviewing a California state appellate court ruling arguing that its medical marijuana law trumped federal law. That, in effect, set the stage for better implementation of medical-marijuana law in not just California, but every state that has one, while also reminding local police that the job of enforcing federal drug policy is, in fact, not its job. 

Two days later, the oldest stash of cannabis ever found was unearthed from a 2,700-year-old grave in the Gobi desert, aptly reminding humankind and its ass-backwards politicians that pot has been around a lot longer than lobbyists. If the eye-candy archaeological slideshow didn't fully illustrate the value of such a stash, the scientists did. 

"As with other grave goods, it was traditional to place items needed for the afterlife in the tomb with the departed," explained Ethan Russo, lead author of the Journal of Experimental Botany paper that announced the find. 

But as readers pondered packing their own trusty pot for use in the afterlife, better news broke on the same day: President-elect Barack Obama nominated New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson to his Cabinet as secretary of commerce. Given that Obama had already confessed to inhaling -- " that was the point," he classically cracked -- and once declared the hyperbolically named War on Drugs "an utter failure," adding that America needed to "rethink and decriminalize" American cannabis laws, Richardson's nomination to Commerce was cause for celebration. After all, Richardson signed a bill in 2007 making New Mexico the 12th state to legalize medical marijuana.

"So what if it's risky? It's the right thing to do," he said of his decision. "My God, let's be reasonable."

Reason is indeed what proponents of decriminalization have been crying for after four consecutive presidential terms derailed their hopes and maneuvers for legalized cannabis, medical and otherwise. But something has always stood in the way of that inevitability, and it has usually leaned quite heavily on the U.S. Constitution's Commerce Clause, which states that Congress has the right to regulate commerce between the United States and other nations, as well as between its own states. It remains the most widely interpreted clause in the Constitution and has been more abused than the American people's goodwill. In the landmark case Gonzales v. Raich, the U.S. Supreme Court, under the distracted leadership of Justice Antonin Scalia, sided with the Bush administration's argument that banning the homegrown cultivation and consumption of marijuana is a federal imperative, even when no cannabis changes hands or travels across state lines. The lunacy of the ruling even threw rightward justices like Clarence Thomas, Jr. off their creaking rockers. 

"Certainly no evidence from the founding suggests that 'commerce' included the mere possession of a good or some personal activity that did not involve trade or exchange for value. In the early days of the Republic, it would have been unthinkable that Congress could prohibit the local cultivation, possession and consumption of marijuana … Respondents Diane Monson and Angel Raich use marijuana that has never been bought or sold, that has never crossed state lines, and that has had no demonstrable effect on the national market for marijuana. 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."

Thomas is right, but a mostly Democratic Congress and Richardson offer the best chance in years to right this conundrum. With Richardson at Commerce, and Congress on the hunt for new sources of green, environmental and financial, during a time of deep economic recession, the launch window for legalization has never been wider… 

 
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