Officials in Barack Obama’s Office of National Drug Control Policy wanted to ease federal regulations on marijuana, but legislative and political restrictions held them back from taking their case public, according to a new report by the Huffington Post.
The ONDCP (more commonly known as the “drug czar) was created by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act 1988, a bipartisan effort during the Reagan Administration. The law specifically said, “the legalization of illegal drugs is an unconscionable surrender in the war on drugs.” When it was reauthorized in 1998, Congress stipulated that no federal funds be used to study the legalization of marijuana or other Schedule I drugs and that the office had to “oppose any attempt to legalize” cannabis.
Under President Obama, officials in the department seriously considered ending the federal prohibition on marijuana. While they didn’t consider making it legal and easily available, former ONDCP deputy Thomas McLellan said the office was “in favor of decriminalizing but not legalizing.”
The administration’s hands were ultimately tied by the laws that made their office possible. “It forced the office to take a policy position that it may or may not agree to,” said Michael Botticelli, the former director of the drug czar’s office. Botticelli added that the legislation “hamstrings you into a policy position that might be the policy of the day but that might change.”
Because of the language that created their office, ONDCP officials couldn’t even give their honest opinion on marijuana legislation, which made them look either ignorant of the overwhelming research or hypocritical in the eyes of both scientists, criminal reform advocates and marijuana activists. They were forced to publicly advocate against studying the issue or considering alternatives.
Obama’s drug czar office was also concerned that decriminalization would obstruct its efforts to solve the opioid epidemic that was creeping across the country. Constrained by the letter of law, the administration took a more nuanced approach. The Justice Department instructed prosecutors to seek the minimum penalty for nonviolent drug offenses. They advocated against mandatory minimums. They increased funding for treatment and education.
Washington D.C. offered a rare glimpse into the administration’s stance, however. D.C. city council’s laws must be approved by Congress, so when District of Columbia residents voted to legalize marijuana, Botticelli said, “I might not agree about legalization, but I do agree with our own ability to spend our own money the way that we want to.”
The legalization of marijuana is not simply a topic of public health debate, it is also a social justice and criminal reform issue. While studies show that Blacks and whites use pot at about the same rate, the American Civil Liberties Union says African Americans are about four times more likely to be arrested for possession. A 2013 University of Michigan study showed that Blacks are twice as likely to be charged with a crime that carries a mandatory minimum sentence as whites in similar circumstances. The Sarasota Herald Tribune studied unequal sentencing in Florida and found:
In Manatee County, judges sentence whites convicted of felony drug possession to an average of five months behind bars.
They give blacks with identical charges and records more than a year.
There is someone who could fix this. On May 15, Congress sent a bill to committee to reauthorize the ONDCP. Maybe the one person who could fix this will step in and pressure his party to end the idiocy that is marijuana prohibition. Or maybe he’s too busy staying up late, snorting the new designer drug smuggled in from Russia.
I think it’s called Covfefe.