Just Another Drug Warrior: Obama Defends War on Pot in New Rolling Stone Interview

The Obama administration is under fire for its assault on state-approved medical marijuana programs, and President Barack Obama is gearing up for the presidential election by shedding responsibility for raiding dispensaries. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone publisher Jann S. Wenner, Obama attempted to defend his administration's war on pot as consistent with his 2008 campaign promise -- one medical marijuana advocates have not forgotten --  to respect state medical marijuana laws. In the interview, Obama deflected blame for the crackdown onto federal prosecutors and what he considers to be illegitimate operations in legal dispensaries. His arguments, however, are flawed.

Obama told Rolling Stone:

What I specifically said was that we were not going to prioritize prosecutions of persons who are using medical marijuana. I never made a commitment that somehow we were going to give carte blanche to large-scale producers and operators of marijuana – and the reason is, because it's against federal law.  I can't nullify congressional law. I can't ask the Justice Department to say, “Ignore completely a federal law that's on the books,” What I can say is, “Use your prosecutorial discretion and properly prioritize your resources to go after things that are really doing folks damage.” As a consequence, there haven't been prosecutions of users of marijuana for medical purposes.

 But for medical marijuana to be safe and regulated, there must be providers. What's more, marijuana patients have, indeed, been arrested. And as dispensaries continue to close --  and states fear opening them -- people who use marijuana medically but buy it illegally are offered little to no protection from prosecution. 

Obama further defended busting medical marijuana dispensaries by alleging that they sell to recreational users:

The only tension that's come up – and this gets hyped up a lot – is a murky area where you have large-scale, commercial operations that may supply medical marijuana users, but in some cases may also be supplying recreational users.

But dispensaries do not determine who is a legitimate marijuana patient. In Colorado, for example, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment issues medical marijuana cards to patient applicants. In other states, licensed doctors admit patients to a medical marijuana program. Determining whether those prescriptions are legitimate is not the job of dispensary operators, nor should they be prosecuted for providing medicine to patients who have obtained proof that marijuana helps them. Similarly, such a medical judgement is not one the Department of Justice, or Obama, is qualified to make.

What's more, while it is often easy for people to obtain a medical mairjuana card, because there are many ailments the plant treats (and many that can easily be faked), recreational marijuana use is not a valid excuse to close dispensaries or ban medical treatment. Like other anxiety and pain medications, recreational users will inevitably slip through the cracks of regulation. 

The real problem, however, is that marijuana's status as a Schedule I drug defines the plant as having "no currently accepted medical use," making it illegal, even for medicinal purposes, under federal law. Obama did not comment on what many consider to be a dire need to reclassify marijuana as medically beneficial (therefore legalizing dispensaries). Tuesday night, however, he told Jimmy Fallon (video below) that full-blown legalization is not something the U.S. can expect to see "anytime soon." 

Interestingly, Obama's reluctance to consider marijuana law reform comes alongside historic shifts in opinion and debate: A record-high 50% of Americans now support marijuana legalization, and Latin Americans leaders are amid an unprecedented campaign urging America to consider drug war alternatives.  At a meeting of 33 Latin American nations earlier this month, however, Obama said the U.S. would not consider ending prohibition.

Still, he suggested to Rolling Stone that a health-based approach to drug war is a more realistic expectation of reform:

We've had a discussion about how to focus on treatment, taking a public-health approach to drugs and lessening the overwhelming emphasis on criminal laws as a tool to deal with this issue. I think that's an appropriate debate that we should have.

A closer look at the U.S.'s new drug strategy, however, reveals that the Obama administration will continue to focus resources on low-level arrests. Obama, it seems, is just another drug warrior. Americans, therefore, cannot expect to see real reform -- significantly fewer (or zero) recreational drug users behind bars or the government's recognition of marijuana's medicinal value -- "anytime soon."

Read the full Rolling Stoneinterview here.  


AlterNet / By Kristen Gwynne and Angela Lee

Posted at April 25, 2012, 10:42am