How can the United States create informed federal laws regarding marijuana if federal agencies are prohibited from researching the plant? One congressman from Tennessee is hoping to alleviate this conundrum.
Instead of a state-by-state effort to reclassify and legalize marijuana, lawmakers in Washington, D.C. are boosting their efforts to change the legal status of marijuana on the federal level.
One of the obstacles in legalizing marijuana on any federal level is that federal agencies are currently prohibited from endorsing any sort of marijuana legalization or even any research on the drug’s medicinal benefits.
To ensure that the Obama administration and all federal agencies are not restricted in any legal way from allowing federal efforts to legalize marijuana or more closely examine the drug, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) introduced a piece of legislation that would remove any legal restrictions prohibiting the Office of National Drug Control Policy from researching marijuana.
Created in 1988, the ONDCP is part of the Executive Office of the President, and is responsible for ensuring that unified drug-control efforts exist across the entire U.S. government and that the federal government is working to reduce the manufacture, sale and use of illegal drugs.
The restrictions Cohen is trying to overturn were first placed on the ONDCP under the Reauthorization Act of 1998, which required the office to oppose “any and all efforts to liberalize criminal laws associated with the plant.”
Under that piece of legislation, the ONDCP director, also known as the drug czar, is also tasked with ensuring that “no Federal funds appropriated to the Office of National Drug Control Policy shall be expended for any study or contract relating to the legalization (for a medical use or any other use) of a substance listed in schedule I of section 202 of the Controlled Substances Act and take such actions as necessary to oppose any attempt to legalize the use of a substance (in any form) that … has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.”
In a press release, Congressman Cohen said he introduced the legislation because “not only is the ONDCP the only federal office required by law to oppose rescheduling marijuana even if it is proven to have medical benefits, but it is also prohibited from studying if that could be even be true.”
“Regardless of your views on marijuana,” Cohen said, “it’s important that we understand the impact of current federal policy and address the conflict with those state laws that allow for medicinal or personal use of marijuana.
“This conflict is only going to continue to grow over the next few years and we must provide certainty to the millions of individuals and businesses that remain caught in a web of incompatible laws. A national commission would provide us with the information we need to create sensible policy going forward.”
He added, “The ONDCP’s job should be to develop and recommend sane drug control policies, not be handcuffed or muzzled from telling the American people the truth. How can we trust what the Drug Czar says if the law already preordains its position? My bill would give the ONDCP the freedom to use science — not ideology — in its recommendations and give the American people a reason to trust what they are told.”
One of Cohen’s aides said the bill doesn’t require the ONDCP to make any particular finding on whether or not marijuana is a safe drug, but it allows the office to further examine the drug.
Current Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske’s office has not commented on Cohen’s legislation, other than saying, “We don’t comment on pending legislation.”
During a House Oversight Subcommittee on Government Operations hearing on Feb. 4, Cohen drilled ONDCP Deputy Director Michael Botticelli with questions about the failed drug war and asked why the government has lied about the dangers of marijuana.
“Let me ask you this,” Cohen said, “You are prohibited by law from using any funds to studying marijuana legalization for medicinal purposes or any other reason? … Aren’t you troubled by these constraints and don’t you think that your expertise should be allowed to be used to study science and to contribute to a positive classification of drugs?”
Botticelli replied that he wasn’t familiar with the reasoning for the law.
“I think that it’s important that our office not involve itself in terms of a given legislation or given activity, and I believe that that was the genesis for that language, that the office not involve itself in state and local …” Botticelli said.
Cohen interrupted, “Your job should be to have a sane drug policy not to be muzzled and handcuffed.”
Botticelli responded that the ONDCP and other federal agencies are free to speak the truth, but Cohen pointed out once again that his boss, Kerlikowske, is basically a propaganda official for a failing war on marijuana.
Though it’s surprising to some Americans that federal officials’ hands are tied when it comes to saying positive things about marijuana, it’s an unfortunate reality in the war on drugs.
As lawmakers such as Cohen, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) and others continue to push for federal reform, especially after President Obama said he doesn’t believe marijuana is any more dangerous than alcohol, it’s likely the federal marijuana-propaganda efforts will lose clout.