With its long name and comforting acronym, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws is one of the oldest legalization lobbies in DC, and the group is over waiting for a drug czar with common sense to come around. Instead, NORML is now demanding that the White House abolish the position altogether, just as President Trump is reportedly preparing to appoint Rep. Tom Marino of Pennsylvania to the office.
Marijuana legalization supporters have myriad issues with Marino becoming the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), the position we call the “drug czar,” but that’s not the only reason NORML wants the entire “anti-science” agency closed. The ONDCP has long been central 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 science, personal liberty or public health, top Trump administration officials — 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.”
Schedule I is the central statutory nerve of drug prohibition in the United States and the bane of marijuana fans everywhere.
Schedule I is the central statutory nerve of drug prohibition in the United States and the bane of marijuana fans and policy reformers everywhere. Under federal law, any drug placed on the Schedule I list is considered by the government to have a “high potential for abuse” and no accepted medical value. Therefore, anyone in possession of Schedule I substances can be arrested and punished. Many of the nation’s favorite drugs are listed under Schedule I, including LSD, magic mushrooms, MDMA and marijuana. By law, keeping these drugs illegal and out of the hands of medical researchers is part of the drug czar’s job.
This mission is becoming increasingly difficult when it comes to marijuana. Marijuana is now legal in some form or another in 28 states and Washington, DC. Research affirming its medical properties abounds, and millions of people use the drug to treat severe diseases or simply manage stress. Despite a harsh and ongoing federal prohibition that slowed medical research on marijuana for years, the drug has successfully wiggled loose from the confines of its Schedule I status, though only at the state level so far.
Marijuana’s political success presents a legal and political conundrum for federal law enforcement. For agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration, it represents an existential threat. With drug legalization, billions of dollars worth of drugs and property that the DEA was once charged with intercepting leaves the black market, which could change the agency’s job description dramatically, along with the size of its budget.
The DEA continues to claim that marijuana has no accepted medical use, but don’t tell that to Jenn Michelle Pedini, a cancer survivor and NORML activist from Virginia. Pedini told a crowd of congressional aides on Wednesday that the US government holds a patent on cannabis-based medicine used to treat debilitating side effects from intense therapies she endured as a cancer patient.
“So there is a certain bit of disingenuousness that comes hand in hand with saying there is no medical use while holding a patent on its very medical use,” Pedini told Truthout in an interview.
The tension over Schedule I was on display this week at a hearing of the US Sentencing Commission, which is reviewing sentencing guidelines for MDMA and a number of newer synthetic drugs. MDMA, also known as ecstasy or Molly, is a popular club drug that is also used for psychotherapy, but it’s been on Schedule I since the mid-1980s. In 2001, the Sentencing Commission dramatically increased mandatory minimum sentences for MDMA offenses, making some penalties up to 500 times as severe as those for marijuana.
Researcher Rick Doblin has been studying the therapeutic effects of MDMA for three decades. He told the commission that the 2001 guidelines were based on misleading science and public hysteria over the supposed dangers of MDMA, which a popular anti-drug campaign once claimed put “holes in the brain.” Doblin said these fears have proven to be unfounded. Risks that may come with MDMA, such as dehydration and overheating from extended periods of dancing, can be mitigated by harm reduction techniques, like putting “cool down” rooms at nightclubs.
Studies show that MDMA is an effective aid to psychotherapy and has successfully treated severe PTSD in war veterans and could also treat anxiety in people with terminal illness. In November, the FDA moved MDMA to phase III trials, the last stage before approving the drug for medical use. Two-thirds of participants in a recent trial no longer met the criteria for having PTSD by the end of the study, according to Doblin.
“MDMA-assisted psychotherapy works by allowing participants to approach trauma without the debilitating sensations of anxiety and fear,” Doblin said.
If the government recognizes that MDMA does have a “medical use,” then it can no longer be classified as a Schedule 1 drug. Terrance Boos, a section chief at the Diversion Control Division of the DEA, could not disagree with Doblin more. Boos presented the DEA’s analysis of MDMA to the commission, maintaining that MDMA is “neurotoxic” and “has no medical use.” After all, if greater numbers of veterans were allowed to use the drug to effectively confront the trauma of war, then society may relax its attitude toward the drug, and legal reforms could follow. That would run counter to the stated missions of both the DEA and the drug czar.
Abolish the Drug Czar
Doblin pointed out at the hearing that the enhanced prohibition of MDMA has contributed to significant public harms. For example, the majority of the Sentencing Commission’s hearing on Tuesday focused on new synthetic drugs that mimic the effects of MDMA or marijuana, and are sometimes packaged and sold in stores and online markets. The substances became popular among vendors because they are cheap and are perceived to carry less legal risk than MDMA or marijuana, but manufacturers have tweaked their chemical compounds to stay ahead of changing laws, creating drugs with harmful and unpredictable side effects.
These synthetics are not as pleasurable as the drugs they are meant to replicate, but they tend to be much cheaper, so marginalized people and those who are homeless use them at disproportionate rates. The synthetic drugs also tend to be much more potent, increasing the likelihood of an overdose that could cause a user to act erratically. Police have responded to such episodes with confusion and violence, generating tales of “bath salt zombies” and other media myths while doing little to address the underlying problems behind drug abuse.
Law enforcement wants stricter sentencing guidelines around these “analogue” drugs and some have already received emergency listings on Schedule I, but reformers warn against using the criminal legal system to attempt to solve problems created in part by law enforcement and prohibition in the first place. Law enforcement crackdowns did not rid the streets of crack cocaine or marijuana during the drug panics of yesteryear, but cops did fill prisons with nonviolent drug offenders.
Criminalization of any drug exacerbates its health risks by pushing risky behavior underground and away from health and harm reduction services. Fear of arrest is the most common reason that witnesses do not immediately call 911 in the event of an overdose, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. Criminalization also makes it more difficult for authorities to study a drug’s impacts on public health, and Schedule I erects regulatory and funding barriers to drug research — one reason why we are only starting to unlock the medical secrets of marijuana.
If marijuana’s ability to chip away at prohibition state by state is any kind of bellwether, drug policy is slowly leaving crime and punishment behind in favor of public health and medical science. Marijuana reforms are on the move in state legislatures and Congress, where a bipartisan Cannabis Caucus is pushing legislation that would legalize and regulate marijuana nationwide. Cannabis could also play a role in combating the opioid crisis.
Trump should look at the polls. Marijuana legalization is increasingly popular, including among the young people at the base of Trump’s own party. Voters are wary of mass incarceration and favor medical treatment over jail time. Even establishment politicians such as Bill and Hillary Clinton, along with the former presidents of several Latin American countries, have called for an end to the war on drugs.
While serving as a district attorney 20 years ago, Tom Marino sought preferential treatment from a judge for a friend convicted of a cocaine offense. However, it’s unlikely that he would extend this courtesy to everyone else while serving as Trump’s drug czar. It’s time to ditch the drug war dinosaurs altogether.