Ending the Drug War: Cannabis Reform Advocates in US Congress

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If you haven’t seen the video coverage of Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA), and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) grilling the drug czar’s chief deputy Michael Botticelli at Tuesday’s House Oversight Committee Hearing on marijuana policy, you should. The lines of questioning are similar to Rep. Cohen’s questioning last year of DEA Director Michele Leonhart, and boil down to one critical question: is marijuana as dangerous as heroin (Schedule I), or methamphetamine (Schedule II)?

And since the answer to that question is NO – of course heroin and meth are more dangerous than marijuana! – these congressmen believe that drug policy makers have a responsibility both to admit this to the American public and to remove cannabis from Schedule I. But officials like Botticelli continue to resist policy change, citing the “totality of harm” associated with marijuana use.

In an excellent and thorough UNZ Review article titled War on Drugs Ends With a Fizzle, Kelley Vlahos analyzes the desperate and reactionary statements of James L. Capra, head of Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) operations, who, much like Botticelli, seems devastated that Washington and Colorado have legalized recreational marijuana, and claims that legalization sends a dangerous message to America’s children.

“The treatment people are afraid, the education people are afraid, law enforcement is worried about this,” said Capra. But are drug warriors who have built their careers on Reefer Madness propaganda policies genuinely worried about the affects of legalization, or are they worried their jobs will become obsolete and their legacy will be remembered as a great injustice to the American people?

Vlahos’ story also quotes the astute observation of Mike Krause, director of of the Justice Policy Initiative at the Independence Institute in Colorado: “Ten years ago, a DEA official talking like this would be like, well, duh,” said Krause. “Now all of a sudden people are mocking him. I think what you are going to see is the drug war establishment really freak out.”

Not so many years ago during the “Just Say No” era, hearing multiple congressmen lobbying so vehemently for an end to the drug war seemed unimaginable.

“You can’t handle the truth,” Rep. Cohen told Botticelli in Tuesday’s hearing. “The truth is, the drug war failed. Your direction on marijuana is a failure.”

Cohen and Blumenauer also emphasized a point that cannabis reform advocates have been making for years: keeping cannabis in Schedule I, and failing to differentiate between the potential harm of cannabis vs drugs like heroin and methamphetamine by taking the “all drugs are bad” position leads children to believe that if they are being lied to about marijuana, they are probably being lied to about the dangers of other drugs as well.

“If a professional like you cannot answer clearly that meth is more dangerous than marijuana – which every kid on the street knows, which every parent knows,” said Blumenauer. “If the deputy director of the Office of National Drug Policy can’t answer that question, how do you expect high school kids to take you seriously?”

“Heroin is getting into the arms of young people,” Rep. Cohen told Botticelli. “And when we put marijuana on the same level as heroin and LSD and meth and crack and cocaine, we are telling young people not to listen to the adults about the ravages and the problems, and they don’t listen because they know you’re wrong.”

It’s also interesting to note that Botticelli is not at all educated on drug war history.

“You know who Harry Anslinger is, don’t you?” asked Cohen.

“I do not, unfortunately,” replied Botticelli.

“Well, you should,” Cohen retorted. “Because he’s your great-grandfather. He started this war in the 30’s. And he was tuned out too.”

Yes, it’s gratifying to hear members of congress talking like cannabis reform advocates have talked for years – they’re finally catching up. And while the ONDCP is taking somewhat longer to accept reality, Botticelli’s admission that he can’t name a single person who’s died of a marijuana overdose and that marijuana is less lethal than some Schedule II drugs is at least a baby step in the right direction.