Ellen Komp

Here's Why Obama's Crack Joke Isn't Funny

Our presidents seem to have a funny relationship with crack cocaine. George Bush the First famously held up a baggie of crack during his first prime-time address to the nation in 1989, announcing ominously that it had been seized in the park across the street from the White House. Only later, after the moment helped usher in even more draconian U.S. drug policies, did it come out that DEA agents had lured the drug dealer to the park in a Wag the Dog scenario to manipulate the American people. 
Now President Obama has seen fit to make a joke about crack while bidding farewell to the White House's beloved pastry chef Bill Yosses. In a speech caught on video, with Michelle shaking her head in disbelief by his side, Obama jokes, "We call Bill the "Crustmaster', because his pies. I don't know what he does, whether he puts crack in them, or..." as the laughter from the crowd cuts him off. 
The incident would be amusing, perhaps, if our government hadn't been so complicit in creating the crack epidemic, through decades of wrong-headed policies and, at times, through direct means.
Economist and Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman wrote in an open letter to Drug "Czar" Bill Bennett in 1989, "Had drugs been decriminalized 17 years ago, 'crack' would never have been invented (it was invented because the high cost of illegal drugs made it profitable to provide a cheaper version) and there would today be far fewer addicts. The lives of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of innocent victims would have been saved, and not only in the U.S. The ghettos of our major cities would not be drug-and-crime-infested no-man's lands. Fewer people would be in jails, and fewer jails would have been built. Colombia, Bolivia and Peru would not be suffering from narco-terror, and we would not be distorting our foreign policy because of narco-terror...."
Remember the flap about the anti-American tirade from Obama's minister Jeremiah Wright during his first presidential election campaign? Lost in the discussion was Wright's damnation of the drug war in his statement: "The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America'," Wright said in a 2003 sermon. "No, no, no, not God bless America, God damn America, that's in the Bible for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human."
Wright was likely referring to information uncovered in Congressional hearings by John Kerry, and by the work of journalist Gary Webb, that the CIA dumped crack cocaine into Los Angeles ghettos to fund Nicaraguan contras during the 1980s.  
If we're talking about protecting our children from dangerous drugs, consider that a 2008 study from the Scotland Future Forum found that in the Netherlands, only 17 per cent of cannabis sellers were also selling drugs such as crack, cocaine and heroin, while in San Francisco, more than 50 per cent were. Decriminalizing marijuana, something the US government has staunchly resisted, would sever any "gateway" connection from marijuana to disastrous drugs like crack. 
Meanwhile we’re supposed to be grateful that after years and years of diligent work by groups like FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums),  we finally have begun to address the outrageous sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine, a substance our jovial president enjoyed in his youth, along with marijuana. 
If we want a serious, progressive drug policy from our president the next time around, we may be looking at the wrong democratic woman. Just before the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination last November, Caroline Kennedy flew to Japan to take up her post as Ambassador to that county. Earlier that year, she served on a jury that acquitted a man for selling crack to an undercover police officer.  No joke. 

Journeys With Jeffrey

Jeffrey's Journey (Quick American Press) is a remarkable story of a mother's struggle to treat her young son's medical condition. A conservative Christian who enlisted in the U.S. Navy and planned to study medicine, author Debbie Jeffries instead met her future husband in boot camp and soon gave birth to her son, Jeffrey. Before his first birthday, Jeffrey started to exhibit behavioral problems, which escalated into severe ADHD (Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder) coupled with obsessive/compulsive behaviors and violent tendencies.

A bright and charming boy when not in one of his rages, Jeffrey was diagnosed with a heartbreaking number of disorders. Doctors tried treating him with at least 16 different prescription drugs, everything from Ritalin and antidepressants to drugs prescribed for adult schizophrenia and epilepsy. None seemed to help and many worsened Jeffrey's condition or had serious side effects. He was institutionalized three times and nearly suffered a fatal overdose of drugs.

When Jeffrey was seven, Debbie's life changed when she heard a student debate about medical marijuana at a school where she worked.

"Up until then, I'd been completely in the dark about the subject. I had never used marijuana; I didn't know anyone who did (or so I thought); and my family and I were conservative Christians who had voted against Proposition 215, which passed in 1996, legalizing marijuana for medical use in the state of California. ... Any exposure we'd had to marijuana was what we'd gotten from the mainstream media. Our general view was that 'pot,' 'dope,' 'grass' – whatever you wanted to call it – was part of a counterculture movement that didn't have much value."

Debbie was amazed to learn that marijuana has been used to treat mental disorders, dating back to ancient times. When she had exhausted other options and was given a 30-day deadline to find a new school or send Jeffrey to an out-of-state residential program, she stepped up her research.

Jeffries found that, under Proposition 215, her son could legally use marijuana in California if recommended by a physician. She launched an exhaustive internet search and found WAMM, the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana in Santa Cruz, which connected her with Dr. Mike Alcalay in Oakland. After extensive evaluation, an experimental treatment plan was recommended for Jeffrey.

"On May 21, 2001, with nine days left before I would almost certainly lose him, Jeffrey had his first dose of medical marijuana, baked into a muffin provided by WAMM. He was seven and a half years old. In some ways, I've felt like that was the first day of Jeff's life. ... It was a 45-minute trip to his school during rush hour traffic. I merged into the right lane to exit the freeway, and as I entered the city streets, I felt something strange happen between our clasped hands. Jeffrey's grip, always tense and restless, suddenly just loosened. It startled me – usually he clutched my fingers. I glanced over at him, and he was smiling. He said calmly, 'Mommy, I feel happy, not mad. And my head doesn't feel noisy.' ... Within half an hour of ingesting that first piece of muffin, I had a new child. I didn't know whether to keep on driving or pull over and cry."

Jeffrey's teacher sent home a note from school that day that began, "It was wonderful!" The teacher reported he had shown no aggression, and that he had been very compliant and responsive to redirection.

Jeffrey continued using marijuana for the next several months. The book relates how the family managed to standardize a dosage of the sativa/indica mixture, cooking it on baking sheets and packing it into pills he could swallow after he objected to the taste of his muffins. Debbie's mother, who initially was strongly opposed to the idea of medical marijuana, came to embrace her role as the "Pill Packin' Grandma" after witnessing the remarkable change in her grandson.

"Six months later, my eight-year-old son wasn't angry at the world," Debbie writes. Soon she had "the mother/son relationship I had dreamed of."

Jeffrey had been overweight (a side effect of his previous medications) before beginning marijuana therapy and as an interesting effect of his new regimen, he ate less until he returned to his normal weight. "The change in Jeffrey was phenomenal," wrote Debbie. "He had more energy and he was enjoying himself." The county school that had given Debbie a 30-day ultimatum was now expecting to be able to mainstream Jeffrey in a year or two.

Although Jeff still showed anger and defiance at times, and he lacked certain social skills, the issues were finally being addressed and real progress was made. When he had to be taken off marijuana – such as when he was hospitalized for a tonsilectomy – Jeffrey's bad behaviors would escalate rapidly. Within an hour of re-administration of marijuana, the symptoms would subside. "It seemed to all of us that Jeff was learning how to really think about his problems for the first time. He was becoming introspective," Debbie wrote.

Debbie received a surprising (to her) outpouring of support and understanding from her friends, church members, even her pastor. However, after only a month and a half of the new therapy, someone reported her to Child Protective Services and a court battle began, culminating in a trial in July 2001. That December, in a landmark ruling, the case was dismissed and the headlines read, "Mom Keeps Son on Marijuana Regimen."

After 48 Hours ran a story on Jeffrey's case in March 2002, 88 percent of viewers who called in voted for allowing Jeffrey to use marijuana. Over the following weeks, Debbie received numerous phone calls and e-mails from across the country from parents in similar predicaments. Other parents had also had success treating autistic and aggressive behaviors in their children with Marinol or marijuana.

Debbie's battle wasn't over. She remarried and relocated, and Jeffrey's new school district claimed they would be in danger of losing federal funding if his meds were administered on campus. She was able to overcome the obstacle by driving to his school at lunchtime and giving him his medicine herself.

Then, in September 2002, the DEA raided WAMM and destroyed the crop that belonged to its 250 member/patients. This cut off the only source of medicine for Jeffrey, who received his medicine free of charge from WAMM. He gained 20 pounds in a matter of months and the extra weight added strength to his violent episodes. A second formula was tried, but it only worked for a few weeks.

Again, Debbie was in a race against time. Doctors told her if Jeffrey's problems weren't brought under control by the time he reached puberty, they could be unsolvable. As the book closes, she has tearfully chosen to send Jeffrey to a ranch in Utah for troubled boys. Angry at her government, but with characteristic courage, she is hopeful the time Jeffrey had with marijuana therapy will help him get through the next stage of his life.

Margaret Sanger of Marijuana Arrested

On September 5, D.E.A. agents arrested epileptic patient Valerie Corral and her husband Michael in Santa Cruz, Calif., on charges of cultivating marijuana for distribution.

The Corrals have made no secret of the fact that their Women's Alliance for Medical Marijuana cooperative serves the needs of seriously ill Californians who have recommendations from their doctors to use marijuana for medicine. W.A.M.M. operated under state law and with the blessing of local officials, but has become the latest victim of an alarming pattern of heavy-handed federal interference in state policy.

The arrest of the Corrals is reminiscent of the 1916 arrest of birth control activist Margaret Sanger after she opened the first birth control clinic in the U.S. At the time, New York state law prohibited even the distribution of information about birth control. But Sanger, a public health nurse in the poorest communities of New York, could no longer stand to witness the suffering of her patients and flouted the law.

In those gentler times Sanger faced only local authorities and a 30-day jail sentence. Today, the Corrals face federal charges carrying mandatory minimum sentences of five to ten years or more, despite the fact that federal authority over the matter is highly questionable.

California Health and Safety Code 11362.5, passed by the voters of California as Proposition 215 in November 1996, exempts Californians from laws against possession and cultivation of marijuana if they have their doctor's approval. The county of Santa Cruz approved a similar measure in 1995. Since then dozens of cooperatives like W.A.M.M. have bravely opened their doors across the state to meet the needs of patients unable to cultivate adequate supplies of medicine for themselves. Valerie Corral is an especially well-respected and well-spoken advocate for her cause, and her arrest led Dale Gieringer of California NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) to declare, "This means war."

According Gieringer, a federal campaign has been mounted against small-time marijuana growers, particularly those who claim a medical exemption. "The feds are targeting honest providers who openly supply medicine to sick people under state law rather than large-scale criminal traffickers who clandestinely supply the recreational market," he said. Gieringer says medical marijuana accounts for fifty percent of the 21 federal marijuana cases filed in the U.S. district court in San Francisco this year. Half the medical marijuana cases involve fewer than 300 plants; only two or three more than 1,000. But only one arrest for terrorism is known to have been reported in California during this time.

DEA agents have moved against medical marijuana gardens as small as six plants, over the protests of local district attorneys. In at least three cases, federal officials have arrested patients already acquitted on state charges because of their medical needs. So far, over a half-dozen medical marijuana growers have been sent to federal prison this year for activities they had reason to believe were legal under state law. The latest is Brian Epis, who was convicted for growing marijuana for a patients' group in Chico, Calif., and faces sentencing in Sacramento on Sept. 23.

In a case similar to the Corrals, Ventura County residents Judy and Lynn Osburn are currently in federal prison in Los Angeles after being arrested by the D.E.A. for growing a small personal-use medical garden. The Osburns were targeted for their past involvement in supplying the 800-member strong Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center. That center's closing was protested by the local sheriff and other public officials, but to no avail.

In the state of Washington, which also has a medical marijuana law, U.S. attorneys in the western district have announced that they will no longer adhere to the Clinton administration's guidelines of not prosecuting cases of fewer than 100 plants. Seattle defense attorney Jeffrey Steinborn says that prosecutors told him that they are under orders from Attorney General John Ashcroft to target medical marijuana providers. Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada and Oregon have also passed medical marijuana laws.

Meanwhile, our neighbors to the north are taking a decidedly different tack. Under Canadian law, Steve Kubby, a U.S. citizen and medical marijuana user, is permitted to grow 49 plants and possess 6 pounds of processed marijuana by judge's order while he is in Canada. And on September 4, the Canadian Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs endorsed the establishment of "compassion clubs" as an alternative for serving medical users. The 600-page report -- the result of a two-year study -- urges Parliament to amend federal laws to allow for the regulated use, possession and distribution of marijuana for recreational and medicinal purposes. "Scientific evidence overwhelmingly indicates that cannabis is substantially less harmful than alcohol," the report states. "It should be regulated by the state much as we do for wine and beer, hence our preference for legalization over decriminalization."

Gieringer doesn't see any relief in these matters in the U.S. unless perhaps the Democrats re-take control of Congress and hold hearings on medical marijuana. He also looks forward to the results of an upcoming University of California study on the efficacy of marijuana as medicine and hopes to hold public officials to their pledge to follow its findings. A National Academy of Science study commissioned by then drug-czar Barry McCaffrey failed to produce a change in policy, although it found many promising medical uses for marijuana.

For now, however, it seems more medical marijuana martyrs will be seeing the inside of U.S. prisons.

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