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NORML director on pot, states' rights and Texas' own Rep. Lamar Smith 


Last month U.S. Reps. Ron Paul and Barney Frank reached across the aisle to introduce legislation that would effectively end the federal war on marijuana, granting states authority to do as they please with pot. Frank, while saying he doesn’t advocate for drug use, insisted marijuana criminalization, a major tenet in the long and costly war on drugs, has failed. Paul, who has drawn fire for his own far-right libertarian stance on drugs, has said the bill is a reasoned approach that knocks back big, intrusive government, letting the states decide for themselves. While Texas seems light-years away from legalizing pot, roughly a third of the country has already done so, even with the criminalization of marijuana looming at the federal level. Ardent supporters of repealing the federal pot ban, like the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Legalization (NORML) predicted the bill’s passage through Congress would be difficult, if not impossible, but still considered its introduction a milestone. And it only took one GOP congressman from Texas to cut the party short. Rep. Lamar Smith, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, vowed to keep the panel from even considering and debating the measure – in effect, quickly killing the bill. Shortly after the bill was filed, Smith told the Associated Press, “Marijuana use and distribution is prohibited under federal law because it has a high potential for abuse and does not have an accepted medical use in the U.S.,” calling pot a “gateway drug.” (Smith’s office did not return phone calls and emails from the Current seeking comment.) Noting Smith’s immediate intransigence, NORLM called on a small army of supporters to swamp the congressman’s office with emails and phone calls, reportedly forcing him to close his Facebook page. They’ve continued to air a series of web PSAs urging supporters to barrage Smith’s office with calls and messages. The Current spoke to NORML executive director Allen St. Pierre last week on the federal pot ban, states’ rights, and how Smith’s blockage of the bill is killing the party for other states. Below are some excerpts from the conversation. What was your reaction to Smith’s almost immediate call to block the bill from moving forward? That’s how the system works. The chairman gets a lot of deference regarding what comes up in the committee. About the only way to move a bill when the chairman doesn’t want the bill to move is for a majority of the committee to petition the chair, which is very unlikely in this case. So, from our point of view, it’s likely a fait accompli that the bill, because of Smith, isn’t going anywhere in this Congress. How big of a deal is it that the measure was even introduced? The fact that a bill was introduced is major. While we know realistically it isn’t going to go very far in this Congress, the fact that there is finally the political impetus to just get a freaking bill introduced is demonstrative of the fact that there has been a sea change in the country over the lat 40 years regarding marijuana. The vexation is entirely cast here in Washington D.C. D.C. came up with Reefer Madness in 1937, and that failed policy has now led to over a third of the country abandoning the core principal of the prohibition, which is severely punishing people to deter them from using the product. Along with other things in place right now, there’s the graying of the baby boom generation, which has a much different attitude toward marijuana than the World War II generation, or what we call the Reefer Madness generation. A bill like this is the very first major chink in the armor of the fed government’s 74-year prohibition on cannabis. Sixteen states have medical marijuana laws, 13 have simply decriminalized it. We have with 74 years of prohibition behind us and we have way too many prime examples of the failure of that prohibition. Of the 22 million people arrested on marijuana charges since 1965, 90 percent of those are for possession only. And we certainly see in many quarters of the country that the racial disparity engendered here is stark. In New York, for instance, 90 percent of those arrested for cannabis charges, of those 42,000 arrested per year, are minorities. So, it’s also real stain on the country, in terms of a policy that, while intended a long time ago in an idealistic utopian way, was supposed to stop people from using marijuana. Smith contends that strengthening enforcement is the best way to stem drug use. Well, the analogy for me to take it out of the context of marijuana, counter culture, etcetera – the prime example for me is tobacco. There can be no question that tobacco, when people use it, is a serious public health concern. And so the government in 1965 came out with its first anti-tobacco statement. They didn’t come out to try to make it illegal. They didn’t vilify and demonize the makers, marketers and users of the product. But they began with some reasonable common sense education saying, basically, that lighting dry vegetable matter and drawing it into your lungs is probably not a very good health decision, and you should be deterred from doing so. Here we are 45 years later, what has been the basic result of the government’s stated goal from 1965? A nearly 50 percent reduction in of those using this problematic, dangerous drug. We didn’t arrest anybody for it. We didn’t test anybody’s pee. We didn’t take away student loans. We didn’t destabilize our borders with Mexico and Canada. We didn’t take the Constitution and twist it into a pretzel to achieve the government’s stated goal – a reasonable one, which was that people shouldn’t smoke tobacco. And there has been roughly a 50 percent reduction. How? Why? Plaintively, we had what’s called progressive taxation – pushing so-called ‘vice taxes’ so high that it thwarts young people from coming into the market. So that seems to have worked on one level. The other thing, and this is probably most important: credible and verifiable public health information campaigns. With those, we have largely succeeded regarding tobacco cessation, tobacco education – and we did so without ever using the criminal justice system. A guy like Mr. Smith, a Yale grad, he’s no dummy. So if that guy claims that he doesn’t want people to use marijuana, than the only model he can look to in his entire life that has even partially worked is tobacco. Less people are using tobacco every decade but we are not criminalizing that behavior. So Mr. Smith, if he really wants to see a reduction in marijuana use, notably among America’s youth, there is only one model that will prevail here, and that is the tobacco model – through legalization, progressive taxation, and verifiable and credible public health information. Over 70 years of marijuana prohibition hasn’t delivered any of those things.” Smith stands up with straight face and says, ‘I don’t want people to use marijuana’, and, ‘I think it’s dangerous.’ Well, great. How do we achieve your stated goal of getting people to stop using it? It’s certainly not by what we’ve been doing for the past 74 years. So what’s your organization doing to apply pressure to Smith? With NORML’s 325,000 friends on Facebook, the 65,000 people on our private listserves, etcetera, it wasn’t too hard within five hours of Mr. Smith coming out against this bill to tell people, ‘Hey, Smith is the head of that committee. This bill can’t go anywhere because of him.’ And the things he said about marijuana are so factually incorrect, it just sounds like Reefer Madness redux. So, to just point such a large constituency at [Smith] and say, ‘Just express your view that he’s wrong’, can, as has been reported, apparently take down his congressional page and take down his Facebook page. That’s not us just trying to jam the guy, that’s just us saying, ‘Alright, you have stated your public opinion, you’re in a position of power, and now you’re going to have to hear from not only your own constituents but got the whole country.’ I mean, according to our data, one out of seven Americans consume cannabis. That is a lot of people to piss off. And not only that, but think about all of these years of this failed policy. So many hundreds of thousands of people being arrested, jailed, their property taken away, their children taken away, their educational loans taken away, being drug tested – being judged not on the quality of your education, your intelligence, your skills, but by your excrement. To think that Smith stands fast and says, ‘I support this system and its failing results,’ that should be embarrassing. What about the attempt to frame it in a states’-rights context? Nobody in the modern era had argued more voluminously, though maybe not articulately, for states’ rights than George W. Bush while he was governor of Texas and as he ran for president in 2000. Bush based it in his experience as a governor, and of course we hear the same echo from [Gov. Rick] Perry today. I mean, the modern GOP, the modern Republican movement, now consistently argues for greater states’ rights. Bush had the perfect opportunity in 8 years to fulfill this mission statement of the modern Republican movement, pushing real power back to the states. Ironically, it was a liberal Democrat who first did so. In May 20, 2009, what you’ll find is a completely wonkish executive order from Obama saying, without ever using the words medical marijuana, that if the federal bureaucracy runs into any situation where it’s in conflict with state law, unless there is a serious national security or public health concern the feds are to defer to the local and state governments. Bush had 8 years to put out executive orders giving the states more freedom on this, but he instead fought it. So the irony is that many Texas politicians and modern GOP as a whole have been big advocates for states’ rights, yet they have chosen to absolutely avoid the issue when it comes to marijuana even though it is right in their wheelhouse, so to speak. That is the conundrum that Mr. Smith, Mr. Perry, Mr. Bush and any other modern Republican is confronted with. They graze in the fields of libertarianism on this topic, but when given the opportunity to actually marry their rhetoric to a totally failed federal policy, they don’t do it. It’s like they want to let the states decide on abortion. Or, as with [Gov. Jan] Brewer in Arizona, let the states decide on what they want to do regarding immigration. But it just depends on what you want to decide on. Intellectual consistency would be good here. It’s frustrating to see these politicians engage in so much states’ rights rhetoric, but in the end still insist on the primacy and the wasteful practices of the federal government in the case of marijuana.   - Michael Barajas, [email protected]

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