Drugs

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.

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… 

"Richardson was a strong champion for legal access to medical marijuana," explains Reena Szczepanski, director of New Mexico's chapter of the Drug Policy Alliance. "In his role at the Commerce Department, he may be well-positioned to examine the economic contributions of the medical cannabis sector to the economy in states that have medical cannabis laws." 

Well-positioned is right, but will Richardson exhibit the kind of spine he showed in the Democratic primary, when his brave decision on medical marijuana in his own state caused him to stick out like a sore realist? The answer came, once again, in December. When asked in an interactive question-and-response forum on Obama's transition site Change.gov whether the president-elect will "consider legalizing marijuana so that the government can regulate it, tax it, put age limits on it, and create millions of new jobs and create a billion-dollar industry right here in the U.S.," the site's answer was the following curt, depressing cop-out: "President-elect Obama is not in favor of the legalization of marijuana." 

That is probably a play-it-safe deferral, given that Obama has yet to take office. But it is still disappointing, given that legalization is an even safer position with the public.

"The main obstacle to legalization of medical marijuana is that many politicians haven't yet figured out that it is a popular, politically safe issue," argues Bruce Mirken, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project. "The fact that it keeps rolling up wins surely helps with that, and the continuing stream of positive scientific studies does as well. But clearly the public is more divided on marijuana policy outside of medical situations, and we need to do a better job of understanding the public's concerns and addressing them." 

In order for that to happen, a public dialogue needs to take place on legalization, and that is almost sure to happen under Obama's watch, as well of that of his friendly Democratic Congress. Indeed, the balls have already begun to roll.

"Legislation will be reintroduced in the House of Representatives during Obama's first term to reform America's antiquated and overly punitive federal marijuana laws," explains Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). "One bill seeks to allow state governments the ability to legalize and dispense medical cannabis without running afoul of federal law. Another seeks to remove federal anti-drug penalties on the possession of up to 100 grams of marijuana, roughly 3 ounces, by adults. One would hope that the new Congress will hold hearings on these proposals and begin a long-overdue, objective political discussion on Capitol Hill regarding the need to amend America's marijuana policies." 

Given that the Bush administration left behind political and economic wreckage at home and abroad, decriminalization and reform might not be at the top of either branch of the government's to-do list. But an exponentially increasing climate crisis, resource shortage and recalibration of globalization and consumption is going to demand some homegrown answers, as nations, states and even cities circle the wagons and look for answers from the interior. And since cannabis has been with humankind for at least a newly established 2,700 years, can grow in practically any climate and was once cultivated by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, there may be no place like home when it comes to turning around a superpower. 

"That we spend billions every year in futile efforts to eradicate America's No. 1 cash crop, a drug markedly less harmful than alcohol, is insane," says Mirken. "And with the federal deficit approaching a trillion dollars, it is time to bring marijuana out of the underground economy, regulate it appropriately, and generate billions of dollars in tax revenues. Instead of guaranteeing all the profits to criminals, which is what prohibition does." 

And if money isn't the point, let's move instead to morality. Even on that diaphanous front, the numbers have spoken. 

"Since 1965, America has arrested over 20 million Americans for violating marijuana laws," explains Armentano. "Penalties include probation and mandatory drug testing; loss of employment; loss of child custody; removal from subsidized housing; asset forfeiture; loss of student aid; loss of voting privileges; loss of adoption rights; and loss of certain federal welfare benefits, such as food stamps. In human terms, some 34,000 state inmates and an estimated 11,000 federal inmates are serving time behind bars for violating marijuana laws. In fiscal terms, this means U.S. taxpayers are spending more than $1 billion annually to imprison pot offenders." 

That's money and lives that disappear down the drain, never to return. And in the end, that is probably the reality that Obama and Richardson will be forced to reconcile. So even if Obama is against legalization now, he will probably be for it later. And if not him, someone else, who pissed-off voters will no doubt vote into office one day. 

"It is not politically risky for the incoming administration to move forward in this area," adds Armentano. "This is a realm where the public is well ahead of the politicians."

Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com. His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.
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