It’s Time to Legalize Marijuana and Abolish the Drug Czar

by Mike Ludwig, Truthout | News Analysis –

With its lengthy name and familiar acronym, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws is one of the oldest pro-legalization lobbies on Capitol Hill, and the group is tired of waiting for a good drug czar to come around. So, NORML is asking the White House to abolish the position altogether, just as President Trump is reportedly preparing to appoint Rep. Tom Marino of Pennsylvania to the office.

Marijuana legalization proponents have plenty of problems with Marino becoming the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), the position informally known as “drug czar,” but that’s not the only reason NORML wants the entire “anti-science” agency closed. The ONDCP has long been a center of command for the war on drugs, a bloody and chaotic conflict that is widely seen as a costly failure.

Unfortunately for NORML and anyone who cares about personal freedom or public health, top Trump administration officials — most notably Jeff Sessions, Trump’s cannabis-loathing attorney general — do not appear to agree. Just this week, Department of Homeland Security Chief John Kelly said that minor marijuana charges would be used as a reason to deport immigrants, effectively combining the war on drugs with Trump’s mass deportation efforts.

However, the public’s attitude toward drugs is shifting, as marijuana legalization in several states has shown. A CBS poll released today shows support for marijuana legalization at an all-time high of 61 percent, and 71 percent of likely voters oppose federal law enforcement intervention in states where marijuana is legal, including a majority of Republicans.

When it comes to issues of drug addiction and overdose, both politicians and the general public are increasingly embracing public health strategies such as funding addiction treatment instead of stiffening criminal penalties for minor drug crimes. CBS found that 69 percent of likely voters say drug abuse should be treated as a medical or mental health issue, not a criminal offense. At this point, the presence of a drug czar seems old-fashioned at best.

The ONDCP was created in 1988, but the position of drug czar has arguably been around since the “reefer madness” years of the 1930s and early 1940s, when Henry J. Aslinger, then the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, helped the government transition from enforcing alcohol prohibition to marijuana prohibition.

Currently, the czar is generally tasked with coordinating drug control efforts across federal agencies and selling the president’s drug policies to Congress and the public. These policies and practices have led to mass incarceration and violent military operations in other countries. Many activists would like to see the term “drug czar” become a relic, just like “reefer madness” and other markers of public panic over drugs like heroin and crack cocaine.

“There is no place for ‘czars’ in today’s American government, particularly those like Marino who still cling to outdated and failed drug war policies that embody misplaced ideologies of the past,” said NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri in a statement.

Marino has consistently voted against marijuana reforms in Congress, including measures that would have expanded access to medical marijuana for veterans, putting him out of step with much of the country. Big Pharma is one of his major benefactors, and he received campaign contributions from painkiller manufacturers that stand to benefit from controversial opioid control legislation he authored. Marino once advocated for placing parents facing minor drug charges in a “hospital-slash-prison,” an idea that critics say amounts to medical coercion.

Critics are disappointed but not surprised. Unlike Obama’s last drug czar, Michael Botticelli, a recovering alcoholic with a background in public health, Marino is a former federal prosecutor who fits into Trump’s vague “law and order” agenda. He passed legislation to crack down on international drug traffickers, a major policy goal of the current president’s, even if that means targeting poor farmers in Columbia. Marino has also shown willingness to work with big business, including the painkiller makers often blamed for the proliferation of opioid overdoses. Critics say Marino’s appointment would leave Trump’s promise to address the opioid crisis ringing especially hollow.

The Drug Czar and Schedule I Prohibition  

NORML does not want to wait for a kinder, gentler czar to come around. The entire existence of the drug czar position runs counter to marijuana legalization efforts and real criminal legal reform. As the group points out, the drug czar is required, by statute, “to oppose any attempt to legalize the use of a substance that is listed in Schedule I” and to “ensure that no Federal funds … shall be expended for any study or contract relating to the legalization (for a medical use or any other use) of a substance listed in Schedule I.”

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Reprinted with permission from Truthout