Biden Moves On Marijuana Reform

“Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit. . . And while white and Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people have been arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at disproportionate rates.” Last week President Biden issued a statement on marijuana reform, granting a pardon for the federal offense of simple possession of marijuana. I did not see this coming, but it is most welcome.

This was actually the first step of Biden’s three-step plan to “end this failed approach” to the drug problem. In the second step, he has called on governors to issue similar pardons regarding state marijuana offenses.

And finally, in the third step, Biden will be “asking the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Attorney General to initiate the administrative process to review expeditiously how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.” Hooray for sanity!

The DEA Drug Schedule lists marijuana as a Schedule I drug, the worst of the worst. This puts it in the same category as heroin, LSD, ecstasy, quaaludes, and peyote. This makes marijuana more dangerous than Schedule II drugs like Vicodin, cocaine, methamphetamine, methadone, Demerol, OxyContin, fentanyl, Dexedrine, among others. (Big Pharma’s fingerprints are all over this thing.)

So who started this “war on drugs”? Was it borne out of the government’s concern for suffering drug addicts? No, it was a cynical, politically-motivated campaign designed by President Nixon with John Erlichman, Nixon’s scruple-free aide who later enjoyed a stint inside a federal prison. Their plan worked perfectly. Dan Baum interviewed Erlichman for Harpers:

“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, 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.”

Over 50 years later we are left dealing with a toxic societal stew of mass incarceration, militarized police departments, SWAT teams executing search warrants, and steadily-rising drug-involved  overdose deaths that reached nearly 92,000 in 2020 (NIH). Illegal drug hauls are no longer measured in kilos, but tons. Drug cartels now use disposable submarines and air conditioned tunnels. But it turns out the worst drug pushers were on this side of the border all along, namely, the pharmaceutical companies like Purdue.

I spent years testifying at the Rhode Island State House in favor of marijuana reform in my capacity as a speaker for Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP). I was part of the Regulate RI coalition organized by Jared Moffat and Rebecca McGoldrick, and, as vexing as these committee hearings could be, I met some wonderful people during this time. Other coalition members included law school professors, mental health professionals, and ministers, as well as advocates like Jim Vincent, director of the local chapter of the NAACP, who spoke to the harm the war on drugs had perpetrated on communities of color.

This brings me to coalition member Dr. Daniel Harrop, a psychiatrist and well-known local Republican party activist; he died last month, leaving a life packed with civic engagement. As a Republican and a mental health professional his testimony was particularly persuasive with those who were not so receptive to the social justice arguments. We all enjoyed his company very much. I wish he had lived to see that the federal government was finally coming around.

More on President Biden’s announcement at NPR.

(Statue of Justice in front of Federal Building downtown.)

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