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February 2018

Thanks to a turn in the national administration policy relative to enforcement of federal law as it applies to use and possession of marijuana, Michigan’s medical marijuana program could well suffer yet another setback, as if waiting a decade for state lawmakers to decide the rules of this program was not insult enough.

Think about it – it has taken 10 years for state legislators to finally enact laws and regulations to govern the medical marijuana industry here, thanks to a less than thorough ballot initiative/supporting documentation and reluctance on the part of lawmakers and some law enforcement officials (including Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, the chief obstructionist) to follow the dictates of state voters because their personal views on the issued differed from the majority of state citizens.

Nearly 63 percent of state voters in 2008 approved a medical marijuana proposal on the Michigan ballot. Just over 66 percent of Oakland County voters supported the initiative.

So just when we think that the foot-dragging has finally come to an end, now we have to deal with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ announcement in recent weeks that he is rolling back a 2013 Obama administration policy, commonly called the Cole Memo after its author, Assistant Attorney General James M. Cole. The Cole Memo was a directive telling federal prosecutors to stop making it a priority to enforce federal marijuana law in states where either medical marijuana or recreational marijuana use has been condoned by the government.

Under the Cole Memo, enforcement was supposed to be directed at preventing distribution to minors; making sure that revenue from sales were not going to criminal enterprises, gangs or cartels; preventing the sale of marijuana across state lines from states where it was considered legal; and halting any production, possession and use of marijuana on federal lands.

It’s difficult to ignore that Sessions, during his confirmation hearings, said he was not going to change the status quo of pot enforcement from what was established during Obama’s second term. But then it is also hard to ignore what we are told is his long-standing opposition to marijuana or the lemming-like march of this administration to roll back many of the executive orders or policies enacted by President Obama.

The history of marijuana in this country is littered with examples of how this drug has been the subject of attacks for mostly political and social reasons by politicians who viewed marijuana users as a force that threatened those in power, most notably during the Richard Nixon administration in the late 1960s.

Nixon was known as the president who, in 1971, officially declared the country’s “War on Drugs” – labeling marijuana “public enemy number one.” Two years later he created the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which now has over 5,000 agents and a budget topping $2 billion.

Prior to that time, the only real effort relative to marijuana was done at the local level in some cities and state, followed by a federal law passed in 1937 which imposed heavy taxes on the sale of cannabis. Although the new law did not criminalize pot possession, the heavy taxation had a similar effect in terms of slowing down use of the drug.

Then in 1970, in response to skyrocketing recreational use of a variety of drugs, Washington passed what is known as the Controlled Substances Act, which established the current laws under which we now operate and under which marijuana was and remains to this day part of Schedule I federally-outlawed drugs that includes heroin, MDMA (ecstasy), mescaline, peyote, psilocybin, GHB and other psychedelic and stimulant drugs.

Ironically, as part of the new act, the Nixon administration was required to establish the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse which ultimately recommended that small amounts of marijuana be decriminalized. That’s right – decriminalized. In their own words: “The criminal law is too harsh to apply to personal possession even in the effort to discourage use. It implies an overwhelming indictment of the behavior which we believe is not appropriate. The actual and potential harm of the use of the drug is not great enough to justify intrusion by the criminal law into private behavior.” Suffice it to say that the Nixon crowd did nothing to promote the panel’s recommendation because it did not fit their personal narrative.

Almost 20 years later, in an interview for a book being written by Dan Baum at the time, Nixon’s former key advisor and Watergate co-conspirator John Ehrlichman admitted that politics was the driving force behind the “War on Drugs” as recounted by Baum in a 2016 Harper’s magazine piece. In Ehrlichman’s own words: “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I'm saying? We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black people, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

President Gerald Ford in 1975 formed the Domestic Council Drug Abuse Task Force which also recommended federal efforts be focused on “those drugs which inherently pose greater risk to the individual and society.” Pot, according to the task force, should be a considered a “low priority drug.” But because Ford had his own set of challenges, nothing was ever done to resolve the issue.

Then along comes President Jimmy Carter in 1977 who ran on a platform to decriminalize marijuana and a Senate committee voted to decriminalize up to one ounce of the drug but, once again, the efforts went nowhere.

Here we are, in 2018, facing much the same blowback on this issue. There’s little chance the attorney general will move marijuana from the Schedule I of serious drugs, now that in 2016 the FDA and DEA ruled it was not a gateway drug but there was lack of scientific research to determine it’s medical value.

Our only hope is that Congress takes some action to restrict enforcement of federal law on this drug, essentially blocking the nonsense put forth by Sessions, and that in Michigan we don’t see a repeat of the questionable law enforcement efforts that have dogged the start up of medical marijuana in this state. The public has reached its limit when it comes to cannabis being used as a political whipping boy.

David Hohendorf


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