Flashback—DEA Responds to Early Medical Marijuana Initiatives

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In November 1996, voters in California and Arizona passed historic ballot initiatives to legalize medical marijuana, starting a politically historical era of reform that so far has resulted in a total of 27 states with similar laws and eight with laws legalizing recreational marijuana use.

On December 2, 1996, Thomas Constantine, administrator of the DEA appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to discuss the issues surrounding the passage of Proposition 215 in California and Proposition 200 in Arizona. In his prepared remarks Constantine expressed the DEA’s concern over these initiatives with a warning to Congress and the nation. Remarkably, the prohibitionist argument today remains an echo of Constantine’s 1996 testimony.

Constantine expressed concern that “most Americans have not yet grasped the consequences” of what had just happened, and need to know that these initiatives were not “local, grass-root efforts, but part of a well-orchestrated, well-financed national movement… to legalize drugs.” The initiatives were not about showing compassion for patients, they were part of a devious conspiracy launched by billionaire George Soros and others “including representatives from the Progressive [insurance] Corporation, the Mens’ Warehouse and… pro-legalization groups… such as the Drug Policy Foundation.”

These groups waged a clever and duplicitous campaign that conned the voters, and were opposed by mainstream medical groups including the American Cancer Society and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, as well as the California Narcotics Officers Association and “many family groups concerned about the impact of drug legalization on the nation’s children.” The opposition was “outspent and out-campaigned by the well-orchestrated effort to legalize drugs on a national basis.”

Constantine found fighting the initiatives very frustrating.

“Those of us who fought against the initiative, including General McCaffrey, myself, HHS Secretary Shalala and former Presidents Ford, Carter and Bush, found it extremely difficult to engage the media in California and Arizona and discuss the real issues underlying these propositions. Even the fact that 13,000 members of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, meeting in Phoenix, Arizona in late October, passed a resolution strongly opposing these initiatives, received little attention.”

After all, in 1992, the DEA had rejected a rescheduling petition from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), and Constantine believed this proceeding should have ended debate over marijuana’s medical use—there was no currently accepted medical use in the United States. The DEA had already cleared this up.  Marijuana had been rejected as medicine by many medical organizations. No prescription medicine was smoked anyway. Marijuana was likely more carcinogenic than cancer, so believed the DEA, and no medical study showed it was effective in controlling nausea.

“Each of the doctors testifying on behalf of NORML claimed that his opinion was based on scientific studies, yet with one exception, none could identify, under oath, the scientific studies they relied on,” he said.

Furthermore, the active ingredient in marijuana, THC, was available in a pharmaceutical product.

For Constantine, the logic of the DEA’s position on medical marijuana was simple, straightforward and easy to understand. “To say that marijuana should be used for pain relief is similar to saying that cigarettes should be prescribed as an appetite suppressant to those seeking to lose weight.” After all, smoking causes cancer and lung disease; society acknowledges this. “Why, then, should we believe, simply on the word of those who seek to normalize their own behavior, that marijuana should be widely available for all to smoke? Why should we allow a few individuals, who write checks in the comfort of their upper-class homes, to dictate policies which we know are harmful?”

The two initiatives posed several problems for law enforcement.

Could state and local police seize marijuana from individuals who received a doctor’s recommendation for their use in these states? Is marijuana a medicine or contraband in these states? Do police risk liability for letting marijuana users leave a traffic stop because of a medical exemption if they “drive off and later injure or kill someone?” Can state and local police detain marijuana users and turn them over to federal officials? Can the federal government take over local enforcement of marijuana prohibition? What about large-scale cultivation by people claiming to be “caregivers?” What about prison inmates—do the laws apply to their potential medical use? “How will law enforcement handle prescriptions or recommendations from doctors or caregivers from other states, or from Mexico and Canada?”

Aside from these law enforcement concerns, what about the concerns of parents? Constantine argued that parents should question the impact of these laws on children. “How will parents be assured that their child’s Little League coach or scoutmaster is not using drugs?” Furthermore, passage of these laws sends the wrong message to kids. “The mixed messages we are sending will most likely have a terrible effect on parents’ ability to provide unequivocal information about drugs to their young children.”

Constantine reassured the Judiciary Committee that “the DEA will continue to target major drug traffickers, including major marijuana growers and distributors.” They would take action against doctors who violated the terms of the DEA registrations by giving approval for medical marijuana use. The DEA would work with other federal and state law enforcement agencies to “ensure that the citizens of both states will be protected from major drug traffickers and unscrupulous medical practitioners. In some cases, they will be one and the same.”

Nonetheless, a warning was necessary.

“It is important for us to recognize that the proponents of drug legalization will not stop with California and Arizona. They intend to support and finance initiatives in many other states… We should keep our attention focused on the next tier of states targeted by the legalizers, and should learn from the California and Arizona experiences. I firmly believe that the legalizers will pour millions of dollars into legalization campaigns, and will work diligently to disguise the legalization issue as a compassionate pain relief issue. However, we must continue to educate Americans about the true nature of the debate, and ensure that they have the facts necessary for them to make a sound decision.”

Public support for legalization has changed. Law enforcement attitudes, especially those at the DEA, have not. The more things changed (like marijuana laws) the more things stay the same (the way reform is seen by law enforcement).

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