By Allen St. Pierre, NORML Executive Director
While there is a constant buzz of cannabis law reform these days in America, largely at the local and state level, unfortunately these strong winds of change do not largely penetrate the Capital Beltway.
This is made clear in a candid interview with Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) Deputy Director Tom McLellan in the November 15 edition of The New Republic’s webpage. In a blunt and critical tone, McLellan is interviewed by University of Chicago professor Harold Pollack for an informative TNR series entitled The Treatment.
While reasonable people can reasonably differ, what personally vexes me is that Mr. McLellan, a longtime veteran of government-provided addiction treatment services (mainly at the Veterans Administration for an astounding 27 years), clearly has an immense compassion, sense of service and commitment to helping his fellow humans who’ve become addicted to drugs find a path back to sobriety and functionality, which is a professional field of public health that I respect immensely. However, I’m terribly disappointed by what appears to be Mr. McLellan’s political tin ear on the subject of cannabis law reform–notably his disdain for patients having legal access to medical cannabis.
I commend NORML supporters to read the entire Treatment interview, below is the applicable excerpt where cannabis is discussed:
Marijuana use, medical and otherwise
Pollack: …. California does a medical marijuana ballot initiative, to take a random example. States do things that are contrary to the general tenure of the policy of this office and maybe to federal policy at large. Attorney General Holder has basically said: “California has made a decision. We’ve got scarce resources, and we’re not going to get in the way of that.”… How do you negotiate that federal/state set of issues?
McLellan: A very tough question. I’m still very new at this. And I don’t speak entirely for the office, so I’ll give you my personal reactions. In the narrow scope of things, the idea of being judicious about the use of your federal prosecutorial resources is first of all the Attorney General’s call and second of all probably smart. You’ve got a rapist and a marijuana user. Who are you going to go after? OK.
But, I’m disappointed that it was done with such drama, and that ONDCP and DoJ did not better-coordinate the policy’s release and answer questions about it side by side. For the first 3 or 4 days, the policy was spun in the media as a stalking horse for legalization and political activists claimed it meant all these things that it didn’t. That happened in part because we didn’t have a clear, coordinated message across the government. This administration, certainly including ONDCP and the Department of Justice, opposes marijuana legalization and believes that it’s worth it to try to reduce availability of marijuana. Normally we work well together on that and a bunch of other issues. We just didn’t work very well together on this one, in my opinion.
The issue of marijuana has been interestingly framed by legalization activists. It’s been framed as, “Marijuana’s not bad for you. In fact, it’s really medically good for certain people.” That was extremely cleverly done, because we could debate that all day long with existing evidence. How bad is marijuana? Is it as bad as alcohol? Does it even have some medical benefits for people that have nausea or glaucoma and all that?
Well, that’s not what’s at issue. What’s at issue is: there are efforts being made to increase the availability, and thus the use, the penetration if you will, of marijuana use. In order to show that availability expansion efforts are sensible and that we should reverse policies and laws and everything else, it seems to me the argument to be proven is, “It’s good for you.” That should be the standard, rather than “Marijuana’s not that bad.” Name for me another substance that you would say, “It’s not that bad, so let’s reverse state laws. Let’s increase availability to a product that really is targeted to young people.” For that, you should have to prove that it’s genuinely good, not just “not that bad”.
And our position is very simple on this, and I think, frankly, you can’t refute it. Marijuana is not good for you. You have to get that one exactly right. I didn’t say, “Marijuana’s not that bad.“ I said, “Marijuana’s not good for you.” And more people using marijuana is not good for society. And I believe these to be facts, by the way….
It is possible to reduce availability, not eliminate, but reduce availability. It’s already been done. It is possible to prevent abuse of marijuana, and it’s possible treat marijuana and other drug addictions. If you do those things, you have a better socially functioning society.
The other artful thing that’s been done by advocates about marijuana is that it has been pitched on one side of the base, “You know, marijuana’s not that bad for you. OK? And by the way, the only alternative to legalization is mass incarceration, which is really bad and it’s really expensive and all that.”
It’s a beautifully crafted, misleading argument. Our argument’s entirely different. Nobody wants mass incarceration of marijuana users. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph–what a waste of money that is. But, marijuana’s not good for you. So we need policies that keep marijuana illegal, are sensible, and that reduce availability and use of marijuana. And those policies–unlike the current legalize and tax proposals being floated –could generate revenue for the public. A city or state could generate a lot of revenue through fines for marijuana users.
Pollack: In my own public health work, I don’t really do that much with marijuana. It’s striking to me that marijuana is such a touchstone of drug policy debate.
McLellan: It’s the center of the universe. Yeah (laughs). With all the really serious problems that we’ve got facing us–prescription drug use probably among the top, and you know, name the other drugs, why we’re spending this time on this nonsense about medical marijuana and legalization. It’s the damnest thing to me. I can’t get over it. It’s almost as though there were a contingent of people out there really eager to keep it at the front of the newspapers. Well, it isn’t us. We don’t want it there.
Pollack: There’s a culture war in which marijuana is one of the key fronts.
McLellan: People make a living debating this on stage. You know? That’s hard for me to believe, that there’s a living to be made going around debating about marijuana’s benefits and why you ought to legalize drugs and crap like that. It’s just like a silly discussion to me.
Well….A few personal observations:
-- Mr. McLellan certainly is ‘old school’ when it comes to endorsing the existing drug war dynamic that when his fellow citizens use illegal drugs to ’save’ them they are best arrested and drawn into the criminal justice system;
-- Like his predecessors at ONDCP, notably former drug czars McCaffrey and Walters, McLellan mocks medical cannabis and the public’s mass acceptance of it as one of the choices that a physician and patient can employ as a safe, non-toxic medicine;
-- Mr. McLellan claims that the current administration does not want to necessarily incarcerate cannabis consumers en mass (how charitable!);
-- Mr. McLellan appears genuinely amazed if not chagrined that there are citizens who exist that disagree with the prohibition of cannabis; that there are actual organizations of citizen-stakeholders advocating for alternatives to the self-evidently failed status quo of cannabis prohibition, complaining that some ‘make a career’ of advocating for obviously needed policy changes.
I suggest Mr. McLellan pause for a moment, look around his ONDCP office, and fully realize that he, and tens or thousands of anti-drug bureaucrats and law enforcement personnel employed by the federal government (ie, ONDCP, DEA, NIDA, Customs, TSA, Border Patrols, VA, SAMSHA, NDIC, EPIC; and hundreds of government organs funded by the taxpayers, like CADCA, NFIA and Partnership for a Drug-Free America) are careerists as well….However, unlike reformers, who employ privately donated dollars (maybe $15-$20 million donated in total to all drug policy reform groups annually), Mr. McLellan and his other career prohibitionists employ tens of billions annually of taxpayer’s money.
Calling the kettle black does not get one far in Washington, DC.
-- Maybe most disturbing, and a notion I’ve never heard advanced before by any drug policy official or law enforcement representative, Mr. McLellan believes that there is to be more revenue collected by arresting nearly a million cannabis consumers a year than by actually taxing the commercial cultivation, sales and consumption of cannabis (and of course the windfall enjoyed by society when billions of taxpayer dollars are no longer wasted annually trying to enforce a clearly unenforceable prohibition via mass arrests, prosecutions, incarcerations and probation services).
NORML supporters and cannabis law reform advocates in general need to realize that while there is a discernible cannabis law reform zeitgeist these days to be sure, unfortunately, existing at the top of government management charts, are government employees who are still very resistant to any real degree of cannabis law reform, and who favor arresting cannabis consumers en mass rather than taxing them like the consumers of alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceutical products.