California started the march to decriminalization of marijuana with Proposition 215, the medical marijuana initiative, in 1996. But it’s now become a laggard in its own parade. And we’re still a poster child for the stupidity of federal policy on pot.
We got a reminder of both last week when the U.S. Justice Department opened a small window of flexibility in the enforcement and prosecution of federal drug law violations in states that have legalized pot even for recreational use.
The immediate prompt was the passage in Colorado and Washington state last year of initiatives decriminalizing and regulating marijuana. Slowly, very slowly, the feds are beginning to realize how expensive and self-defeating marijuana prohibition has become.
But there’s a hitch. The new policy applies only, in the words of last week’s Justice Department announcement, to “states that have strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems that will address the threat those state laws could pose to public safety, public health and other law enforcement interests.”
So far, California has no such system. Proposition 215 left regulation pretty much to local governments, creating no end of uncertainty and legal confusion as well as the inherent conflict with federal law, which still bans marijuana as a dangerous drug. In the view of Congress, and a lot of narcs, pot has no recognized medicinal value and a strong potential for abuse.
And so we’ve had 15 years of DEA raids on medical marijuana dispensaries, pot growers and others engaged in the production and distribution of the drug.
Some raids were justified. Lack of state oversight opened the door to profiteering that had little to do with suffering cancer or glaucoma patients or any other defensible medical use. But some just compounded the confusion and victimized the same sick people a second time.
There’s a bill, Senate Bill 439 by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, to create a state regulatory system that would bring some order to the confusion and maybe satisfy the feds. But it probably won’t get to the governor’s desk until next year, if then.
The real problem, of course, lies in the federal law, which, from its inception in the 1930s, owed more to bias against Mexicans and yellow journalism than it did to scientific data about pot’s malignant effects. When the repeal of prohibition in 1933 put a lot of T-men out of business, Harry Anslinger, the first head of the federal Bureau of Narcotics, seized on marijuana as a great argument for enlarging his domain.
Anslinger wasn’t alone. Right here in River City, there was Charles M. Goethe, a Sacramento multimillionaire who regarded Mexicans as “peons” who “multiplied like rabbits” and campaigned vigorously to stop Mexican immigration. Mexicans were evil because they brought marijuana into the country, he reasoned; marijuana was evil because Mexicans used it.
This was the era of “reefer madness” when “marihuana” – “Mexican opium” – was linked to wild sex and killing rampages by “Mexican dope fiends,” and when newspaper publishers like William Randolph Hearst, who had his own grudge against Mexico, saw the marijuana scare as a great circulation booster.
The main reason to outlaw marijuana, Anslinger reportedly said, “is its effect on the degenerate races.” In 1937 we got the federal Marijuana Tax Act, which in effect added pot to the list of federally banned substances.
And as we should know by now, the drug laws continue to have their racist effects: the percentage of blacks arrested on drug charges far exceeds their proportions among users. As Michelle Alexander writes, prisons have replaced plantations: This is “the new Jim Crow.”
At the same time, the Justice Department memo’s reference to “using (the government’s) limited investigative and prosecutorial resources to address the most significant threats in the most effective, consistent and rational way” seems to recognize how much money and manpower minor drug law enforcement sucks away from more urgent priorities.
But the light that’s slowly dawning in Washington seems to be dawning even more slowly in Sacramento, where the cops and the League of California Cities have so far managed to block the passage of SB 439.
The bill would tighten the rules allowing physicians to recommend marijuana to patients. But the opponents object to the proposed rules requiring more specificity in the grounds on which cities can ban marijuana distributors as nuisances, and they object to the bill’s lack of “enforcement provisions that would address the abuse of marijuana by those who do not need it for legitimate medical reasons.”
The national Institute of Medicine, like some other respected scientific and medical groups, says there’s enough research evidence for the therapeutic benefits of cannabis in relieving pain, reducing nausea, stimulating appetite and decreasing ocular pressure to warrant further studies. The American College of Physicians says there’s little evidence that pot is “a gateway drug” to other narcotics, as the league of cities, among others, contends.
But the feds are still blocking those studies, and Sacramento is stuck in Anslinger’s shadow. When it comes to marijuana law, it’s still 1937.
Peter Schrag is a former editorial page editor of The Bee.