Trump and Biden: Two Profiles in Cowardice on Marijuana

Trump and Biden: Two profiles in cowardice on marijuana
SEP 17, 2020 AT 5:00 AM


Since the beginnings of the drug war, national policy on marijuana has been essentially frozen. Marijuana has been classified with the most dangerous drugs, without foundation in careful studies of the substance. The report of President Nixon’s marijuana commission was immediately thrown in the wastebasket. The federal prohibition, of dubious constitutionality given the absence of a federal police power, was sustained with the votes of the Supreme Court’s so-called “liberals.”

Only a few elected politicians have taken risks to revise a failed policy. They include Gary Johnson, Kurt Schmoke, Rand Paul and Barney Frank. Johnson, a self-disciplined world-class athlete, was caricatured as some sort of hophead. Changes in state laws have come about largely through public referenda, not legislation.

The Obama administration sat with its arms folded while the Black and white youth of the country were subjected to 750,000 marijuana arrests a year. The Trump administration acquiesced in Congress’ refusal to provide funds to prosecute possession offenses, but even distributors authorized under state laws are denied access to banks.

This was so even though Obama was once an enthusiastic marijuana user while Trump, a tee-totaller, was unusually well-positioned to urge change.

Marijuana, save for a few, is not an addictive drug, nor a life-threatening one. In excess, it can do harm to the minds of teenage users, though not older ones. Its basic vice is that it serves as a de-motivator, allowing young users to escape problems when they should be confronting and learning from them. Many people in public life squandered portions of their undergraduate years in substance-induced hazes, and it shows. Also, emergency-room visits can result due to the absence of quality control.

Meanwhile, maintaining the criminal prohibition on its possession and use has proven to be a form of virtue-signaling. For 60 years, usage has been about 15% of the relevant age cohort.

Trump has proposed no revision in policy. Biden, rejecting Bernie Sanders’ appeal for full legalization, calls instead for de-criminalization, denying distributors recourse to the courts to enforce their contracts.

But as George Shultz, Paul Volker and three conservative Latin American presidents have said, absent legalization, enforcement of contracts takes place at the point of a gun. Other benefits of legalization include labeling, licensing, the enforcement of age requirements for purchase, quality control, drug testing without fear of self-incrimination, excise taxes, enhanced revenues from sales, payroll, income and business taxes, fixed and inspectable places of sale rather than a distribution system reaching into every classroom, publicity of health effects, and elimination of the temptations of forbidden fruit.

The demise of alcohol prohibition was preceded by the Wickersham Report, in which 10 of the 11 commissioners urged improved enforcement, nationalization, or rationing schemes. Their attitude was summarized by the columnist Franklin P. Adams:

“Prohibition is an awful flop.

We like it.

It can’t stop what it’s meant to stop.

We like it.

It’s left a trail of graft and slime.

It don’t prohibit worth a dime.

It’s filled our land with vice and crime.

Nevertheless, we’re for it.”

President Roosevelt embraced the repeal recommendation of the lone dissenter. Though repeal did not abolish alcoholism, alcohol became a personal problem, not a political one. There was no more gangsterism, corruption of the police and local governments, or St. Valentine’s Day massacres. The young apprentices of the Capone and other gangs, by no coincidence, found new work in the youth employment programs of the New Deal, including the Civilian Conservation Corps. It and Repeal were the two most popular measures of the Roosevelt administration, whose leader said, when Democrats had leaders: “a temporizing and insincere policy is disastrous not only to the cause of Prohibition, but to that of temperance as well.”

Liebmann, a Baltimore lawyer, is the author of “America’s Political Inventors” and the editor of “Prohibition in Maryland.”

Posted in: Criminal Justice, Culture Wars, Drugs, Economic Regulation, Health Care, Judiciary and Legal Issues, Urban Affairs

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