In this year’s presidential election, medical marijuana advocates in California were pretty clear on which candidate they were rooting for. On multiple occasions, Democrat Barack Obama has pledged to end the federal raids that have bedeviled the state’s dispensaries for years under the Bush administration.
But some of their relief has turned into concern as the incoming president has begun to consider appointments to key posts. Obama will reportedly appoint two men who have been fierce critics of medical marijuana: Eric Holder, rumored to be Obama’s pick for attorney general, and Donald Vereen as transitional co-chair of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).
If confirmed to run the Justice Department, Holder would have wide authority to set policy and priorities for the Drug Enforcement Administration. Under President George W. Bush, the DEA has conducted dozens of high profile raids on medical marijuana dispensaries that are allowed to operate openly under California law. Officials have frequently referred to their operators as “criminals” and “drug dealers.”
Holder has a long history of past positions that appear to be closer to current policy than to Obama’s campaign pledge. According to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, he proposed stiffening federal marijuana penalties in 1997 while serving as Deputy Attorney General under President Bill Clinton.
He was criticized by NORML again the next year for failing to take action against the Washington State Lieutenant Governor’s office for using federal funds earmarked for drug enforcement to create a website about the “dangers” of medical marijuana while voters of that state were deciding on a medical marijuana initiative. Holder has been acceptable enough to conservatives that he was nominated to a Washington, D.C., judgeship by Ronald Reagan, widely considered the biggest proponent of the drug war among U.S. presidents.
“He certainly does not appear to have the best drug policy stances,” Kris Hermes, media relations at Americans for Safe Access, said of Holder. “But it’s fairly difficult to tell what positions he will take if confirmed.”
Vereen appears to have taken even stronger anti-medical marijuana positions. He served as the deputy director of ONDCP from 1998 to 2001. In the April, 1999 issues of Psychiatric News, the Journal of the American Psychiatric Association, he called doctors who prescribed marijuana “irresponsible” and advocated arresting medical marijuana patients.
He has also frequently gone on record essentially claiming that marijuana can’t be thought of as a treatment because it’s usually smoked and because dosages are difficult to control. This position has just as frequently been mocked by advocates, who note that there is not a single documented case of a person dying from a marijuana overdose.
Of most concern to advocates may be Vereen’s opposition to a medical marijuana initiative which passed in Michigan this year. Speaking in his role as the director of Community Based Public Health at the University of Michigan, he said the initiative “puts young people at risk.”
But Bruce Mirken, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, noted that public opinion polls and votes are trending his group’s way.
"In Michigan, I can’t help but notice that medical marijuana outpolled Obama by six points," Mirken said.
Obama got 57 percent of the vote in the key Midwestern swing state. But Proposal 1, which will allow patients or caregivers to possess up to 12 plants and 2.5 ounces of dried marijuana, got 63 percent. Pre-election polls suggested the outcome was never really in doubt.
Mirken went on to note that the three western states Obama flipped to the blue column from 2004—Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico—are all medical marijuana states. There are now 13 such states, the others being Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington and Vermont. These states cover one-quarter of the US population, and represent 124 of Obama 365 electoral votes.
Both Hermes and Mirken said that any relaxation of federal enforcement is likely to be a done without much fanfare, at least in the short term. Obama is unlikely to step into the kind of public relations scandals that plagued the first two years of the Clinton administration, such as the gays in the military brouhaha.
But Hermes said his group will be using medical marijuana’s growing clout to make sure “Obama keeps his word.” A pair of other early presidential candidates—Republican Ron Paul and Democrat Dennis Kucinich—have been very supportive of medical marijuana, he said, and even Hillary Clinton took more liberal positions than Obama on the issue.
Hermes went on to say his group will participate in a “grassroots campaign” to break the federal government’s “monopoly” on medical marijuana research and push for a national policy on the issue.
“We’ll certainly be holding his feet to the fire,” Hermes said.
Mirken said federal pressure has really prevented most medical marijuana states from fully implementing laws approved by voters—a situation that is particularly notable with California’s Prop. 215, passed with 56 percent of the vote in 1996. California has been Ground Zero, he said, “because we have these openly-operating dispensaries that present ready targets for federal enforcement.”
Other states have sidestepped this problem largely by not being directly involved in the administration of policies.
“It’s hard to set up a system when any information you collect is potentially evidence in a federal trial,” Mirken said. “There really isn’t anyone in charge.”
Holder and Vereen are not the only appointees of concern to advocates. Vice President-elect Joe Biden has been a strong supporter of the war on drugs in the Senate. While he also opposes federal raids on dispensaries, at a May campaign stop in Connecticut he said of pain management that “There’s got to be a better answer than marijuana.”
“He’s been a prominent figure in the war on drugs for several years,” said Zack Risner, media relations for the Cannabis Club Network, of Biden. “That doesn’t mean it’s going to be a direct relation to Obama’s policies.”
Obama’s new chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, and another ONDCP appointee, Christopher Putala, have also been openly critical of medical marijuana. But Mirken said that is would be difficult for Obama not be an improvement over Bush.
“The way the Bush administration has operated, they just made stuff up,” Mirken said. “It will be nice, if it happens, to have the federal government re-enter the reality-based community.”
By Malcolm Maclachlan
Published Thursday, November 20, 2008