Turning over a new Leaf: Is Big Marijuana becoming the new Big Tobacco?

Published: Salon (October 17, 2016)

As the movement to legalize marijuana continues to gather steam, will consumers have to deal with a cabal of corporate giants along the lines of Big Tobacco? Is this just another excuse to ban the drug, or is there a real threat that “Big Marijuana” may rear its ugly head the near future?

Fears of a corporate-driven Big Marijuana are being stoked many anti-marijuana groups, which have begun shifting their focus from scaring people away from the drug to claiming that large companies are going to try to sell it to children. “Joe Camel normalized cigarette smoking especially for young people. The Marlboro man normalized cigarettes for an entire generation. Marijuana wants to follow suit. Normalization is the cornerstone of that,” said Kevin Sabet, a former Obama administration drug policy adviser who now run Smart Approaches to Marijuana, in an interview with MSN.

Small marijuana growers in California are highlighting a different concern about the prospect of Big Marijuana. When opposing Proposition 64, which would legalize the drug in their state, they point out that big businesses will have an easier time managing the regulatory and environmental costs of cannabis farming, making it harder for smaller marijuana farms to effectively compete.

At the same time, the tide is shifting in favor of legalization. Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia have already legalized marijuana in some form, and aQuinnipiac University poll in June found slightly more than half of Americans support legalizing the drug (54 percent). Although there are risks to smoking marijuana, including respiratory damage and weight gain due to increased appetite, the cultural stigma against the drug has largely dissipated in recent decades. If Big Marijuana does become a fixture in our economy, it will be because public opinion opened the door for it.

Could Gary Johnson end the drug war? Libertarian candidate’s presidential bid could put sane drug policy in our grasp

Published: Salon (June 1, 2016)

A recent survey found that Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor who was just nominated to be the Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate, does surprisingly well against Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican candidate Donald Trump. Although his 10 percent is nothing compared to Clinton’s 38 percent and Trump’s 35 percent, it’s enough to make his candidacy relevant to our national conversation.

This is where Johnson’s bold and unorthodox view on drug policy could alter the course of American history.

Johnson is perhaps best known for his unabashed support for marijuana legalization. Back in 2000, he became the highest ranking American political official to ever call for ending the prohibition against recreational cannabis use; later that same year, Hawaii Governor Benjamin J. Cayetano and Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura joined him in calling for the federal government to decriminalize pot and treat drug abuse as a public health issue rather than a crime. In the years since, Johnson has remained boldly iconoclastic on these issues, admitting to The Weekly Standard that he smoked pot from 2005 to 2008 to recover from a paragliding injury and vowing during his 2012 presidential campaign that he would pardon marijuana offenders and “defang” the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

There are good reasons for wanting to cut the DEA down to size. According todrugpolicy.org, America spends $51 billion annually (that’s billion with a ‘b’) in its so-called war on drugs, a program that exists for no other reason than to tell American citizens what they can and cannot do with their own bodies. Nearly 1.3 million people were arrested in 2014 alone merely for possessing contraband substances (83 percent of all drug arrests), more than 600,000 of whom were taken in for marijuana possession (88 percent of all marijuana-related arrests). All of this is occurring as America continues to house the world’s largest prison population, of whom adisproportionate number are African American or Latino (even though, when it comes to drug-related offenses, they are no more likely to use than whites). Not surprisingly, a 2015 Gallup Poll found that 58 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana – the highest number in the survey’s history – with that number rising to 71 percent for 18-to-34 year olds.

Of course, Johnson isn’t simply saying that marijuana should be legalized; he is arguing that, unless a drug user poses a direct risk to others (for example, driving while under the influence), their actions shouldn’t be criminalized at all. The logic here is very similar to that employed in supporting gay marriage (which Johnson does) and a woman’s right to choose (which Johnson also does up to 24 weeks, although as a fiscal conservative he opposes government funding for organizations that perform abortions). While socially conservative Americans have every right to disapprove of recreational drug use, it is profoundly troubling that they are able to use our government to impose their personal moral beliefs on other people… especially considering that, as President Obama admitted last year, the war on drugs has been “very unproductive.”

While there is an inexorable logic of completely legalizing marijuana – Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and Washington, D.C. have already done so — Clinton and Trump haven’t gone nearly as far as Johnson. Characteristically, Donald Trump has been deliberately vague about all matters related to drug policy; although he supports medical marijuana, his main criticism of the war on drugs is that “we do such a poor job of policing.”  By contrast (and to her credit), Clinton has been much more specific, advocatingrescheduling marijuana from a Schedule I to a Schedule II substance (which would allow further research into its health benefits), supporting its use for medical purposes, condemning the wildly disproportionate racial disparities in drug-related arrests and sentencing, and vowing not to interfere with states that have legalized it entirely. That said, she doesn’t support outright legalization of marijuana, and although she supports sentencing reform for other drug-related offenses (in particular singling out the disparity between cocaine powder and crack cocaine), she still backs both the DEA and the underlying policy goals of the war on drugs – one that, notably, her husband’s administration did a great deal to worsen.

Fortunately for drug policy reformers, a viable Johnson candidacy could be a game-changer. Third-party candidates have a long history of supporting ideas that are ultimately picked up and implemented by one or both of the major parties: Two of the most famous examples include the Populist Party in 1892, which introduced American voters to the secret ballot, the direct election of US Senators, banking reform, and the graduated income tax, and the Progressive Party in 1912, which called for the prohibition of child labor, mandatory workplace safety laws, workers’ compensation, and many of the business regulations later implemented by the New Deal. Because the presidential candidates of those parties (General James B. Weaver and former President Theodore Roosevelt, respectively) outperformed most third-party candidacies, future Democratic and Republican candidates saw the practical as well as moral wisdom in adopting their more reasonable policy proposals.

Given that he has already cracked double-digits in early polls, Johnson is in an excellent position to play a comparable role in this election. After all, it isn’t like Clinton and Trump aren’t already in considerable trouble. Both of them have higher unfavorability ratings than any major party candidates since the dawn of modern polling, and each has alienated large swathes of their party’s bases in order to become their presumptive nominees. If Johnson continues to poll well and increases his mainstream media exposure, he could pose a simultaneous threat to Clinton from the left (he is more liberal than her on a number of social issues) and Trump on the right (he is more conservative than him on a number of economic issues). In order to stave Johnson off, both Clinton and Trump will need to peel off his voters by moving closer to his positions… and, as the surveys of public opinion make clear, drug policy is a shoo-in to be one of them.

This is why, although I’m not a libertarian myself, I can’t help but wish Johnson a fare-thee-well in his upcoming presidential bid. His statements about America’s war on drugs have been courageous and ahead-of-the-curve, and we would benefit enormously if they were enacted into public policy. The 2016 presidential election is already a historic one – from Clinton becoming the first major female candidate to Trump breaking the GOP establishment’s half-century lock on their party’s nomination process – but that doesn’t mean further history can’t be made here. If Johnson’s campaign is able to pressure our next president into doing the right thing about marijuana specifically, and our war on drugs in general, he will have cemented his place as one of America’s great champions of social justice and personal freedom.

Ireland is right—it’s time to rethink how we treat heroin users

Published: The Daily Dot (November 5, 2015)

This week, Ireland took a bold step in ending the war on drugs: The nationannounced this week that—as part of a broader program to decriminalize not only cannabis but cocaine and heroin—the country will create specially designated rooms in Dublin where addicts can safely and legally inject themselves with small amounts of their drugs. This plan coincides with recent bill introduced by Sen.Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to legalize recreational marijuana—to which the Internet responded with predictable enthusiasm.

It makes sense that Web users would be inclined to applaud Sanders’ legislative proposal. A Pew Research Center survey taken in April found that 53 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana, including 68 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 34 and 52 percent of those between the ages of 35 and 50; well over 80 percent of Americans in those age brackets actively use the Internet in their day-to-day lives.

This generation has largely fueled the movement to legalize marijuana in the U.S—with states like California, Maine, and Maryland allowing personal use of cannabis. And it’s time for the Internet to follow Ireland’s lead by pushing for the decriminalize heroin.

The country will create specially designated rooms in Dublin where addicts can safely and legally inject themselves with small amounts of their drugs.

For one thing, the underlying issues involved in Ireland’s new policy on addressing heroin addiction are very similar to the ones at play when it comes to marijuana legalization. In a recent speech explaining his position on pot, Sanders explained that there is a racial dimension to the issue. “Although about the same proportion of blacks and whites use marijuana, a black person is almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person,” he argued.

The same is true for harder drugs: Statistics show that drugs more likely to be used by racial minorities (e.g., heroin) are given particularly severe punishments, and African-Americans are more likely to serve time than whites for the same drug-related offenses. As T. C. Sottek of the Verge put it, “the war on drugs is one of the reasons blacks make up just 13 percent of the population but roughly half of all prison inmates.”

The war on drugs also helps explain why police tactics have become increasingly militarized. Because America’s drug policy focuses on arresting offenders rather than providing addiction treatment, police officers are inevitably encouraged to come up with increasingly sophisticated ways of putting drug users behind bars.

As recently as last year, the United States Department of Defense provided $4 billion in surplus military equipment to local police for free in part to more effectively apprehend drug dealers and users. “The war on drugs has created a culture of violence and puts police in an impossible situation,” explained Sen.Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a speech during his 2016 presidential campaign.

Finally, America’s current approach to combatting drug use is needlessly expensive. Although the United States only contains 5 percent of the world’s population, it holds 20 percent of its prisoners, making it by far the world’s largest jailer. As of 2013, this cost taxpayers $40 billion each year, with much of that money going into the coffers of the private corporations that build our prisons. Many of these groups actively (and successfully) push for harsher drug policies because they know it will increase the number of inmates and, thus, help their bottom line.

Yet while all of these facts strongly suggest America needs to reevaluate its drug policies, none of them prove that the Irish approach should be considered as a substitute. There is a very simple reason why that is the case: It works.

This brings us back to the fundamental question: Is the ultimate objective simply to punish people or to reduce drug abuse and help its victims?

While it may seem counterintuitive to give free heroin to heroin addicts, the symptoms of heroin withdrawal are so serious that it is often practically impossible for severe addicts to overcome them. As a result, European countries like Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom have set up programs where chronic abusers can take heroin injections under medical supervision and receive regular counseling.

In Switzerland, this almost immediately resulted in a noticeable decline in the crime rate, including a 55 percent drop in vehicle thefts and 80 percent fewer muggings and burglaries. Meanwhile, less than 15 percent of the program’s patients relapsed back into daily use. Similar results have been reported in the other European countries that have adopted this approach.

This approach isn’t without its critics, of course. After a similar program was implemented in the Canadian city of Vancouver, Al-Jazeera correspondent Allen Schauffler argued that the policy was comparable to blackmail.

“What it says to these people is, ‘Yep, you are heroin addicts. A certain number of you, the most severely addicted are heroin addicts, you’ll always be heroin addicts, there is no hope of you getting off heroin, therefore let’s provide you with heroin so you are the least dangerous drug addict you can possibly be,’” he wrote. “It’s a very odd… moral line to walk.”

While there is merit to these concerns, even critics like Schauffler acknowledge that most of the addicts who use the program claim to have been helped by it. Considering the program’s success, it makes sense that Ireland would implement a similar initiative as part of what the country’s chief of National Drugs Strategyreferred to as “a radical cultural shift.”

This brings us back to the fundamental question: Is the ultimate objective simply to punish people or to reduce drug abuse and help its victims?

If America aims to do the latter, then it will be necessary for our leaders to implement bold, even unorthodox approaches to this problem. In this respect, the policy of offering safe spaces for heroin addicts to use in moderation has the dual advantage of both being known to work and reducing the stigma associated with drug use. After all, by treating the heroin use as a disease to be treated rather than a crime to be punished, countries like Switzerland and Canada have simultaneously improved the lives of drug abusers and significantly reduced violent crime rates.

Should the Internet be looking for its next great cause, marijuana legalization supporters should look no further.

4 surprising reasons Rand Paul might be the liberal candidate you’re looking for

Published: Daily Dot (May 29, 2015)

At a time when the Republican Party has developed a reputation for voting and thinking in lockstep, it is worth noting that Kentucky’s Sen. Rand Paul has a surprisingly bipartisan appeal, which is becoming an important part of his growing presidential campaign. In the wake of an Internet-breaking filibuster on the Patriot Act, the outspoken National Security Agency critic has “reached out to African-American Republicans, spoke to a group of moderate Republicans, and held a news conference with House Democrats,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

But targeting liberals will be an important part of the Web-friendly candidate’s campaign (who even has his own subreddit), and indeed, Paul’s libertarian platform shows a great of overlap with the left, with a number of stances that could appeal to Democrats. Of course, it remains to be seen whether this constitutes genuine conviction or political pandering on his part—after all, Paul would hardly be the first president to get elected on promises he doesn’t intend to keep.

Rand Paul might not win, but as these four policies show, he’ll certainly shake things up.

1) The Patriot Act

Perhaps Paul’s most conspicuous break from GOP tradition occurred last week, when he filibustered the extension of the Patriot Act, a piece of legislation passed during George W. Bush’s presidency that significantly expanded America’s security state in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks. As Paul tweeted at the time:

Thanks to the 11-hour filibuster, Paul has earned the scorn of Republicans like pundit Bill Kristol, who derisively referred to the Kentucky Senator as a “liberal Democrat” for agreeing with progressive House members Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) on that and a number of other issues. The fact that Paul’s filibuster had bipartisan support almost certainly didn’t help his cause among GOP stalwarts, although they tended to depict his maneuver as either grandstanding or paranoid.

Of course, the Senate was forced to adjourn without extending the bill, so Paul’s filibuster has been at least a temporary success.

2) The prison-industrial complex

Paul has also emerged as the Republican Party’s chief (and arguably only) prominent critic of the growth of America’s prison-industrial complex. During the Ferguson, Mo., riots last year, Paul not only condemned the violence of the police officers, but managed to frame what he called “the militarization of local police precincts” as an issue of big government run amok—deftly blending a liberal stance with conservative reasoning.

“The outrage in Ferguson is understandable—though there is never an excuse for rioting or looting,” he wrote in an editorial for Time. “There is a legitimate role for the police to keep the peace, but there should be a difference between a police response and a military response. The images and scenes we continue to see in Ferguson resemble war more than traditional police action.”

More recently, Paul extended this condemnation to include the likely Democratic presidential nominee next year, Hillary Clinton. “Your husband passed all the laws that put a generation of black men in prison,” he said on a CBS radio talk show last week, referring to measures that nationalized a “three strikes” policy and toughened crime laws that disproportionately target racial minorities. “She’s changing her tune now. She’s changing her tune because people like me have been speaking out against these injustices.”

3) He wants to end the War on Drugs

It’s important to recognize that, unlike strict libertarians, Paul refuses to take a stand on whether marijuana and other narcotics should be legalized. At the same time, he is a leading sponsor of the CARERS Act, which would amend the Controlled Substances Act so that the federal prohibition on marijuana would not apply to those who grow, sell, and/or use it for medical purposes.

More importantly, he has argued that the federal government shouldn’t be getting involved in enforcing drug policy at all, instead leaving that matter to the individual states. “Just end that war on drugs and make it a much more local situation, more community oriented,” he explained in a 2000 appearance on the show Kentucky Tonight. “There’s probably a lot of savings in that.”

He elaborated on this in 2014 during an interview with Bill Maher, promising to do “everything to end the war on drugs” in large part because it disproportionately targets racial minorities and the poor:

Our prisons are full of black and brown kids. Three-fourths of the people in prison are black or brown, and white kids are using drugs, Bill, as you know… at the same rate as these other kids. But kids who have less means, less money, kids who are in areas where police are patrolling. … Police are given monetary incentives to make arrests, monetary incentives for their own departments. So I want to end the war on drugs because it’s wrong for everybody, but particularly because poor people are caught up in this, and their lives are ruined by it.

4) He opposes mandatory minimum sentencing

In a stance that he shares with a growing number of conservative activists, Paul has spoken out against mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which require judges to impose harsh penalties on low-level drug offenders. Once again, he frames this position in the rhetoric of racial oppression. “If I told you that one out of three African-American males is forbidden by law from voting, you might think I was talking about Jim Crow 50 years ago,” Paul pointed out. “Yet today, a third of African-American males are still prevented from voting because of the war on drugs.”

Last February, Paul reached across the aisle to achieve meaningful reform on this issue, working with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to promote the Justice Safety Valve Act, which allows federal judges to give sentences lower than the mandatory punishment when they feel that the required minimum violates standards for fair punishment laid out elsewhere. In a statement issued for the press, Paul contextualized his argument through the lens of federalism, declaring that “the federal government should get out of the way, and allow local and state judges to do their jobs.”

Despite Bill Kristol’s characterization of Paul as a secret liberal, the truth is that his seemingly left-wing positions have more to do with a relatively consistent application of his anti-government ideology than they do with any covert progressivism. Not only does Paul rationalize his opposition to the security state or prison-industrial complex by using the rhetoric of small government, but whenever liberal ideals require an interventionist state—such as with health care reform or social welfare programse—he has reliably come down against the leftist position.

Indeed, Paul isn’t even absolute in his ostensible libertarianism, as he still opposes same-sex marriage and has yet to speak out against the voter suppression laws being passed by Republicans throughout the various states.

Nevertheless, it is both notable and admirable that a Republican presidential candidate with Paul’s high profile has been willing to go against the grain of his own party’s ideals on so many important issues. It may seem like a betrayal for liberals to give him credit where it is due here… but it would be a far greater betrayal for us to not do so.

We should be sending drug addicts to the hospital, not putting them in prison

Published: Daily Dot (May 7, 2015)

At a time when Americans are justifiably shown real stories of police violence and racial profiling, it’s important to give credit to the law enforcement officials working to change our current system of brutality. That’s why we should all be praising the Gloucester Police Department in Massachusetts for its bold new anti-drug program: Instead of hauling drug offenders off to the slammer, it will get them medical treatment.

“Any addict who walks into the Gloucester Police Department with drugs and the remainder of their drug equipment—needles, pipes, or other paraphernalia—and asks for help will not be criminally charged, Campanello said,” according to a news report by MassLive.com. “Instead, they will be steered into a treatment program to help them detox and recover.”

Gloucester Police announced the new policy in a Facebook post that’s currently been liked over 25,000 times:

https://www.facebook.com/GloucesterPoliceDepartment/posts/697808590329673

From a strictly medical perspective, this is both the morally and logically correct thing to do. After all, drug abuse isn’t a character flaw—it’s a mental illness. “Addiction changes the brain in fundamental ways, disturbing a person’s normal hierarchy of needs and desires and substituting new priorities connected with procuring and using the drug,” explains the official drug abuse site for the National Institute for Health. “The resulting compulsive behaviors that override the ability to control impulses despite the consequences are similar to hallmarks of other mental illnesses.”

Instead of hauling drug offenders off to the slammer, it will get them medical treatment.

In addition to drug addiction being a mental illness in its own right, it is also particularly prevalent among those with pre-existing psychological disorders. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research discovered that patients with mental illnesses are responsible for the consumption of 38 percent of alcohol, 40 percent of cigarettes, and 44 percent of cocaine (note how only one of those substances is illegal). When the numbers are adjusted to include past as well as those currently suffering from a mental illness, they increase to 69 percent for alcohol, 68 percent for cigarettes, and 84 percent for cocaine.

Meanwhile, Advances in Psychiatric Treatment determined that close to half (48 percent) of all opiate users have experienced depression at some point in their life. While it’s challenging enough to recover from that condition when you’re sober, the odds become incredibly slim when it’s combined with an addiction to heroin or another narcotic substance.

There are also socioeconomic factors to take into consideration when shaping drug policy. “Research suggests that there is a strong association between poverty, social exclusion, and problematic drug use,” writes the Drug and Alcohol Rehab Asia. “Those who are unemployed, particularly long term unemployed, in poor or insecure housing and are early school leavers have a higher rate of substance abuse than those who do not fit into those categories.”

In America, there is also a distinctly racial aspect to how we enforce our drug laws. “African Americans comprise 14 percent of regular drug users, but are 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses,” explains Drugpolicy.org.

In an editorial for the Huffington Post, the National Council of La Raza, the largest Hispanic civil rights group in the United States, laid out the problem more clearly. “Today, 1 in 15 of black men and 1 in 36 of Latino men are imprisoned, as compared to 1 in 106 of white men,” resulting in non-white Americans comprising 60 percent of the prison population, despite constituting only 30 percent of America as a whole.

In America, there is also a distinctly racial aspect to how we enforce our drug laws.

This is due in large part to how our drug laws are enforced: “20 percent of whites have tried cocaine, while only 10 percent of blacks and Latinos have used it. Whites also use marijuana, painkillers, meth, and other drugs at higher rates than people of color—and yet black individuals are arrested for drug possession more than three times as often as whites are.”

In short: Drug addiction is a sickness, social as well as physical. While no mainstream law enforcement policymakers are arguing that drug addicts who commit non-drug related crimes should be left off the hook, it stands to reason that those whose sole offenses are drug-related should not be treated like criminals.

This would hardly be the first time America has made great strides forward in its treatment of prevalent mental illnesses. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Americans preferred the institutional inpatient care model for treating psychological disorders. While this theoretically provided patients with round-the-clock care, these facilities were usually underfunded, understaffed, and rife with complaints of human rights abuses and substandard living conditions.

Despite the reform efforts of activists like Dorothea Dix in the 1840s, improvements in our treatment of mental illness didn’t become widespread until the middle of the 20th century, when deinstitutionalization and outpatient care became more common thanks to three factors: our increased understanding of the physiological roots of mental illness, and the benefits of antipsychotic drugs, and a consequent lessening of the stigma associated with these types of afflictions.

Of course, even with our increased knowledge about mental illness, we still have a long way to go. Deinstitutionalization has resulted in a host of problems of its own, and conservative political leaders like President Ronald Reagan have increased the likelihood that the mentally ill will wind up homeless or impoverished thanks to their tendency to slash programs intended to help sufferers of psychological disorder.

These facilities were usually underfunded, understaffed, and rife with complaints of human rights abuses and substandard living conditions.

While we have come a long way from the days when skull drills and leeches were frequently used as “remedies,” the mere fact that we still demonize drug users as criminals shows that we have a lot of work to do.

That’s why it’s all the more imperative for humanitarians to applaud those who are willing to think outside the box and take bold steps to helping victims of drug-related mental illnesses. Appropriate initial steps have already been taken with the growing online movements to legalize marijuana and scale back the scope of the war on drugs.

That said, when Gloucester Police Chief Leonardo Campanello declared to a town forum in Essex County that his department was “poised to make revolutionary changes in the way we treat this disease,” he was doing more than simply explaining how he planned on fighting a particularly prevalent crime. He was placing himself, as well as the men and women who courageously serve under him, squarely on the right side of history.

How the Internet could force Barack Obama to back medical marijuana

Published: Daily Dot (April 23, 2015)

On Sunday night, President Obama backed Medical Pot Reform—and the Internet noticed.

Perhaps more important than the fact that the Internet is abuzz over Obama’s interview with CNN, however, is the fact that the Internet may be able to pressure him to do the right thing on this issue, which is especially crucial as Alabama considers backing medical marijuana. So why, at a time when Internet campaigns have been so effective in raising awareness on matters from feminism to racism, has marijuana legalization remained such a slow burner?

In their own way, the three aforementioned tweets each capture the most important talking points the Internet should be discussing after Obama’s interview. As the Guardian astutely observed, Obama has expressed support for a policy (i.e., reducing constrictions around the use of medical marijuana) that has support from libertarian Republicans like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), as well as the traditional liberals in Obama’s own base.

Although the president hedged his bets by merely promising to “take a look at the details” of Paul’s Senate bill and only conceding that medical use of marijuana “may in fact be appropriate,” he emphasized that “the more we treat some of these issues related to drug abuse from a public health model and not just from an incarceration model, the better off we’re going to be.” Considering that critics of prevailing drug policy are highly critical of our harsh criminal punishments for drug offenders, this was an important stance for Obama to have taken, all the more notable because of its potential bipartisan support.

At the same time, when Obama talks about the need to “follow the science as opposed to ideology,” he is only half-right.

On the one hand, he is correct that science has proved there are numerous health benefits to marijuana use, and any society that claims to base its state policies on reason needs to take this knowledge into account when determining marijuana’s legal status. While his denunciation of “ideology” is no doubt partially directed at the often-hyperbolic rhetoric of the anti-drug crusaders, however, it could just as easily apply to the zeal of pro-legalization advocates.

When Obama talks about the need to “follow the science as opposed to ideology,” he is only half-right.

An important difference between the two sides must be noted: Even if scientific studies somehow demonstrated that regular marijuana use was a net negative for one’s health, there are plenty of unhealthy substances that the state doesn’t prohibit its citizens from using (e.g., cigarettes, alcohol, fast food). It is disingenuous to assert an equivalence, implicit or otherwise, between a pro-criminalization ideology that imposes subjective lifestyle preferences on others and the pro-legalization alternative, which champions individual liberty.

This brings us to Ventura’s claim that Obama “doesn’t have the balls to #legalize #marijuana.” Certainly it’s also important to appreciate that Obama has done more to liberalize America’s marijuana policies than any other president since cannabis prohibition went into effect in 1937. Not only did he decline to enforce federal drug laws in Colorado and Washington after those two states voted to legalize marijuana, but his Justice Department under Attorney General Eric Holder took bold measures to reduce and/or eliminate entirely tough mandatory prison terms for nonviolent drug offenders.

Then again, the president has traditionally approached the issue of marijuana legalization with great caution. His language in Sunday’s interview, for instance, was reminiscent of the position he articulated during his campaign for the United States Senate in 2004: “The war on drugs has been an utter failure. We need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws. We need to rethink how we’re operating the drug war.”

This language may seem justified as politically expedient, but in light of Obama’s personal history, there is a level of hypocrisy to it. As an editor from the Washington Post discussed in 2012, Obama was himself quite the pothead in his own day, often spending time with a clique of friends informally dubbed “The Choom Gang.” Obama alluded to this himself in his 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father, where he wrote that when dealing with personal struggles, “Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it.”

Obama has done more to liberalize America’s marijuana policies than any other president since cannabis prohibition went into effect in 1937.

It’s fair to assume that if Obama had been arrested for his use of these illicit substances back when he was a legally vulnerable teenager or twenty-something, he would likely not be sitting in the White House today (especially in light of the long-documented racial disparity in who gets incarcerated by anti-drug laws). While Obama presiding over the continued implementation of draconian anti-drug laws isn’t as flagrantly hypocritical as, say, President Warren Harding implementing prohibition while leaving the White House “awash in alcohol,” it’s still galling.

This is where the Internet could, theoretically, play a valuable role. A Pew Research Center survey found that 53 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana; that number goes up among younger generations, including 68 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 and 52 percent of the next highest demographic, Americans between the ages of 35 and 50.

This corresponds neatly with the numbers of Americans who regularly use social media: As Pew Research informs us, 89 percent of adults ages 18 to 29 participate in digital culture, compared to 82 percent of adults ages 30 to 49, 65 percent of adults ages 50 to 64, and 49 percent of adults ages 65 and up. Indeed, Obama himself jokingly acknowledged this as far back as 2009, when a question about marijuana legalization received over three million votes in an open forum he held early in his presidency:

There was one question that voted on that ranked fairly high and that was whether legalizing marijuana would improve the economy and job creation. And I don’t know what this says about the online audience, but … this was a popular question. We want to make sure it’s answered. The answer is no, I don’t think that’s a good strategy to grow our economy. All right.

I suspect the president’s flippant attitude toward the perspective of Internet users reveals a great deal about why this issue hasn’t gained the traction of other causes that are popular online. Because of the cultural stigma attached to marijuana use, it is easy to take attention away from the serious civil liberty issues at play by its continued criminalization. Even though millions of Americans smoke pot and millions more believe it should be legalized, there remains the embedded assumption that this is simply not as “serious” an issue as many of the others currently being bandied about in our collective political discourse.

What’s more, despite the historic campaigns to legalize it in Colorado and Washington, there has yet to be a groundswell of national activism to end this prohibition on the scale of other recent civil liberties-based campaigns (e.g., those involving LGBT rights).

What makes this particularly tragic is that, if legalization advocates used the resources available online more effectively, they could pressure both Obama and future presidents into making real change. It is reminiscent of Franklin Roosevelt’s legendary response to labor leaders who attempted to persuade him to back a bill important to their cause: “I agree with you. I want to do it. Now make me do it.”

Can the Internet rise to that challenge?

If You Believed the “37 Dead in Marijuana Overdose” Hoax, You Should Be Ashamed

Published: mic (January 4, 2014)

You may have already seen this headline all over social media:

Marijuana Overdoses Kill 37 in Colorado On First Day of Legalization

Already Twitter and Facebook feeds are abuzz with this news item, as right-wingers purr with delight at the opportunity to tweak their left-wing and libertarian friends with proclamations of “I told you so!” Upon further investigation, however, I discovered (SPOILER ALERT!) that the story was a hoax.

I could take the high road here a la Demosthenes, the legendary Greek orator who observed of his critics: “A man is his own easiest dupe, for what he wishes to be true he generally believes to be true.”

Instead I will opt for the more enjoyable route and simply list all of the reasons why anyone who believed this story needs to understand why the word “gullible” is in the dictionary.

For one thing, the source that published the story is clearly a fake news site. Just as The Onion is renowned for using fictional journalism as a vehicle for biting comedy, so too is The Daily Currant a purveyor of satire instead of straight reporting. Indeed, the same Daily Currant page that boasts the false marijuana statistics also includes such hard-hitting and reliable stories as:

Pope Francis Expands Vatican Drone Program

Clay Aiken Joins the Cast of Duck Dynasty

Will Ferrell Parachutes from Space to Promote Anchorman 2

Santorum Producing Straight Remake of Brokeback Mountain

As the “About” section on their website conveniently explains, they produce “purely fictional” stories as their “mission is to ridicule the timid ignorance which obstructs our progress, and promote intelligence – which presses forward.”

While it should go without saying that someone shouldn’t believe a news story without first confirming the credibility of its source, even those who didn’t bother exploring The Daily Currant‘s website could have easily deduced that it was a hoax had they simply bothered to fully read the article itself. Among the many signs that the authors were joking:

– Its sources included a doctor named “Jack Shepard” and a former methamphetamine dealer named “Jesse Bruce Pinkman.” Fans of the TV shows Lost and Breaking Bad should immediately recognize those names.

– It claimed that marijuana use had caused conditions like hypospadias, which is a birth defect affecting the penis, and trimethylaminuria, which is better known as “Fish Odor Syndrome.”

– The “real person” quotes were, for lack of a better word, corny. B-grade horror movies have more nuanced dialogue than some of the gems culled from this piece. Exhibit A: “Someone needs to step in and stop this madness. My god, why did we legalize marijuana? What were we thinking?”

Exhibit B: “Marijuana is a deadly hardcore drug that causes addiction and destroys lives. When was the last time you heard of someone overdosing on beer? All these pro-marijuana groups should be ashamed of themselves. The victims’ blood is on their hands.”

Exhibit C: “We can’t sit idly by and allow this slaughter to continue.”

Finally, there is the simple fact that no one has ever died from a weed overdose.

This isn’t to say that irresponsible use of marijuana can’t lead to fatalities, as is also true of legal drugs like alcohol. In the end, though, the World Health Organization summed it up best when it wrote that based “on existing patterns of use, cannabis poses a much less serious public health problem than is currently posed by alcohol and tobacco in Western societies.” Any argument that can be made against the widespread use of cannabis will, if applied logically and indiscriminately, extend to substances that no large segment of our society wants to see banned. This is no doubt why so many people were quick to believe that marijuana started killing people – after all, if you don’t believe that it is somehow more dangerous than legal drugs, what good reason is there for spending billions of dollars and arresting hundreds of thousands of people for using it?

The words of Daniel Patrick Moynihan are more relevant now than ever:

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

Eric Holder May Have Just Made One Of the Biggest Decisions in U.S. History

Published: mic (August 12, 2013)

On Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department will stop imposing mandatory minimum prison sentences on a number of non-violent drug offenders.

As he explained in a prepared statement:

“I have mandated a modification of the Justice Department’s charging policies so that certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels, will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences.”

Given that the United States imprisons a higher percentage of its population than any other large country, and that most of these incarcerations are the product of the harsh anti-drug laws passed by Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, the Obama administration’s new policy makes a great deal of practical and moral sense. Indeed, with Colorado and Washington legalizing recreational cannibis use last November and popular health pundit like Dr. Sanjay Gupta recently reversing his stance on medical marijuana, Holder’s order seems less like a bold advance in favor of drug liberalization than it does a recognition of our society’s shifting sensibilities on drug policy.

This is unfortunate, because if ever there was a potential political lightning rod just waiting to receive its first electric jolt, it’s this one.

By way of historical analogy, let us look at Prohibition. For decades a diverse coalition of special interests could be found demanding the abolition of alcohol in America, from evangelical Protestant organizations that focused on the moral aspects of the issue to women’s groups which viewed it as a matter of protecting our domestic life. After being advocated for nearly a century, the so-called temperance movement triumphed in 1919, first with the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment and then with the passage of the Volstead Act for its enforcement. To some observers, it seemed that America had used the letter of the law to forever stamp liquor out of our national life.

A little more than a decade later, however, that law was repealed.

It is easy enough to understand why by looking at the havoc wreaked by Prohibition itself. Instead of reducing crime, it caused a spike in criminality, as perhaps most prominently embodied by the career of notorious gangland leader Al Capone. Similarly, instead of eliminating alcoholism from our public life, it simply forced it underground, with even avowed Prohibitionists like President Warren Harding sneaking liquor whenever the opportunity presented itself. By any reasonable measure, Prohibition was an abysmal failure, one that cost taxpayers millions while falling far short of its own professed goals.

At the same time, even a failed law can remain in place if the body politic lacks the will to remove it. The persistence of marijuana prohibition, and the continuation of what Holder rightly described as “draconian” mandatory minimum sentences for other illicit substances, is proof of that. While the obvious shortcomings of Prohibition were instrumental in its eventual overturning, the process was further facilitated by the fact that national political leaders heard and heeded the call of larger social movements devoted to legalizing alcohol again. From Alfred Smith, the progressive New York governor who served as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in 1928 (as well as the first Catholic to ever be nominated by a major party for the presidency), to Franklin Roosevelt himself, it took the support of people at the top to lend legitimacy to the clamoring of the grassroots movements supporting civil liberty … and, ultimately, to effect their will.

While the Obama administration’s recent actions are no doubt a step in the right direction, it is unfortunate that he has yet to seize the opportunity to position himself in a Rooseveltian position on the issue of the drug wars. No doubt this is because of obvious differences between Prohibition and our current drug policies, from the financial stakes involved (with the prison-industrial complex today being far more powerful than its Prohibition era antecedent) to the respective political movements advocating repeal (with the anti-Prohibitionists being far better organized and coordinated than their Drug War-era counterparts today). At the same time, a true leader isn’t someone who waits for fortuitous conditions before planting the seeds of progress, but is bold enough to take whatever cultivation measures he can in order to create and ultimately reap a meaningful harvest. That’s why, as I heard Holder’s statement, I found myself wishing for something closer to what Franklin Roosevelt said when explaining his opposition to Prohibition during the 1932 presidential election. After describing the “complete and tragic failure” of Prohibition as consisting of “encouragement of lawlessness … corruption, hypocrisy, crime and disorder” and “the spread of intemperance,” he went on to point out that the failure “came of very good reason,” to whit:

“We have depended too largely upon the power of governmental action instead of recognizing that the authority of the home and that of the churches in these matters is the fundamental force on which we must build. The recent recognition of this fact by the present Administration is an amazing piece of hindsight. There are others who have had foresight. A friend showed me recently an unpublished letter of Henry Clay, written a hundred years ago. In this letter Clay said that the movement for temperance ‘has done great good and will continue to do more’ but ‘it will destroy itself whenever it resorts to coercion or mixes in the politics of the country.’

“Another statesman, given to the Nation by this State of New Jersey, pointed out this necessary course when Federal Prohibition first became a great issue. President Wilson foresaw the economic and social results of such an attempt. It was not necessary for him to live through the disastrous experience in order to come to the conclusion now confessed by our present President. In statesmanship an ounce of foresight is better than a pound of hindsight.”

One can only hope that Obama will further utilize the foresight that revealed itself, albeit in its most nascent form, in Attorney General Holder’s actions today. If so, there is indeed a chance that he will elevate himself to the level of statesmanship on this issue.