Steve Cohen Calls Marijuana Prohibition Unjust, Wonders Why Obama Is So Stingy With Commutations

WikipediaWikipediaAt Wednesday's House Judiciary Committee hearing, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) mentioned two areas of drug policy where President Obama could act unilaterally to remedy clear injustices:

The disparity in crack and cocaine, we changed the law, all those people in there who serve longer time than they would have under the law now, the president could commute their sentences.

And one of the greatest threats to liberty has been the government taking people's liberty for things the people are in favor of.

The Pew Research Group shows that 52 percent of Americans think marijuana should not be illegal, and yet there are people in jail and your Justice Department is continuing to put people in jail for sale and use on occasion of marijuana. That's something the American public has finally caught up with. There was a cultural lag, and it's been an injustice for 40 years in this country to take people's liberty for something that was similar to alcohol.

You have continued what is allowing the Mexican cartels' power and the power to make money, ruin Mexico and hurt our country by having a prohibition in the late 20th and 21st century. We saw it didn't work in this country in the '20s; we remedied it. This is the time to remedy this prohibition, and I would hope you would do so.

Obama supported the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which shrank the irrational penalty gap between crack and cocaine powder. But that law did not apply retroactively. The upshot is that thousands of crack offenders continue to serve sentences that Obama has said are excessively long. Yet he has barely lifted a finger to help people who by his own account do not belong in prison, issuing a grand total of one commutation during his four and a half years in office.

Unlike commutations, repealing marijuana prohibition is not something Obama can do on his own. But he can allow Colorado and Washington to legalize marijuana without federal interference, and those experiments could ultimately lead to the end of federal prohibition, just as state resistance to alcohol prohibition helped end that costly and invasive attempt to stop people from consuming a politically disfavored drug.

Cohen is an important voice for drug policy reform in the House, but I wonder how far he would carry the argument that it is unwise and unjust to ban "something that [is] similar to alcohol," in the sense that it can be (and typically is) consumed in moderation without causing significant harm to the user or others. Since that is true of pretty much every psychoactive substance that large numbers of people are interested in consuming, the implications of Cohen's principle extend beyond marijuana.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    It's like Sullum and Cohen don't want anyone to make any money. Dealers get to make money without paying taxes, law enforcement and correctional institutions and treatment centers all make money off the status quo. It's like these guys are anti-money, not to mention the soccer moms who are desperate - DESPERATE - to keep their angels away from drugs and drugs away from their angels. WONT' SOMEONE PLEASE THINK OF THE SOCCER MOMS.

  • WomSom||

    This makes a whoel lot of crazy sense dude. Wow.

    www.Prox-Anon.tk

  • ||

    "......Wonders Why Obama Is So Stingy With Commutations."

    C'mon Steve, I know you arent that naive. You know damn well why. He is too busy partying it up with Jay Z and Beyonce to be bothered with tedious bullshit like that.

    I wonder how many Jay Z fans are rotting in the klink, listening to his music and cheering for The One.

  • Ted S.||

    Damn you; I was thinking much the same thing. I thought you were still on your Ambien high or something.

  • JeremyR||

    I don't think the Mexican cartels make their money off of pot.

    People shouldn't be in jail for smoking it/selling it, but it's not going to affect Mexico, just like the Mafia didn't disappear once Prohibition was repealed.

  • sarcasmic||

    In fact the majority of money made by the Mexican cartels is from marijuana. Think about how many people you've known in your life who smoke weed compared to people who use "hard" drugs.

    Legalizing pot wouldn't put the cartels completely out of business. Then again it just might. I mean, if the stuff was legal it would become relatively difficult to find a drug dealer for "hard" drugs since legal pot dealers would no longer be keepers of the gateway to the black market.

  • kevin_hunt||

    The Mafia does not sell bootleg liquor anymore.

  • Duncan20903||

    JeremyR, it's just plain absurd to keep feeding profits to the cartels because "they won't go away" after repeal.

    The people who will stop participating in the black market are the 90+ percent of lower level dealers. You know, the ones that insulate the big shots from getting arrested and send them the bulk of their profits. If you understood the pecking order in the cannabis black market I believe that you would understand just how far off in fantasy land is your opinion.

    We don't need to make the cartels "disappear" in order to improve our lives, just like stripping the profits from the drinking alcohol cartels in 1933 seriously diminished their power and gross profits.

    The crux of this bogus argument that the crims won't go away seems to be that we need to keep the utter stupidity of cannabis prohibition because otherwise the criminals will get into REAL mischief.

    (con't)

  • Duncan20903||

    (con't)

    If you actually believe that cannabis isn't providing billions of profits for the Mexican cartels then you are off in fantasy land and your opinion discarded as worthless, because that's what it is.

    http://www.khou.com/news/texas-news/207709561.html
    "EL PASO, Texas -- Mexican drug cartels fighting each other for smuggling routes face increasing competition in the U.S. where legalization in some states has increased the amount of marijuana available."
    /snip/

    According to the DEA, the amount of marijuana from Mexico seized in the El Paso area declined by nearly half starting in 2009, as drug cartels clashed violently just across the border in Ciudad Juarez.

    "Once the fighting started in Mexico, we didn’t have the amount that was coming through in the past," said the narcotics officer.

    When the violence disrupted smuggling operations, officers began to see more U.S. grown pot, especially a variety known as Kush. It’s more potent and higher priced than Mexican marijuana.
    /snip/

  • Lord Peter Wimsey||

    I'm confused. Where is Palin's Buttplug to tell us that in fact Obama has been the most generous president in history with commutations (consistent with his anti-statist philosophy) and that this story is just another hatchet job from people who get all their views from Glenn Beck?

    I can usually set my clock by him.

  • John Galt||

    From what I've been reading, these days Glenn Beck opposes the drug war.

  • kevin_hunt||

    Sarah Palin and Glen Beck have endorsed marijuana legalization.

  • np||

    Unlike commutations, repealing marijuana prohibition is not something Obama can do on his own.


    Since drug scheduling is placed directly under the controlled of the executive, could he not simply deschedule any drug, in fact, unilaterally by executive order, effectively nullifying the CSA?

    Likewise, a president could use EO's to defund or outright ban enforcement of congressional acts or existing legislation (I have heard Ron Paul mention this theoretical possibility too), instead of the usual use of EO's to grab more power.

    That would seem to be the way to allow states to set their own policy, like Jacob metioned too. That is, a legal prohibition against enforcement of legislative prohibition.

  • kevin_hunt||

    You are correct. Nixon put marijuana in schedule I, and Obama has the power to take it out of schedule I.

  • Robert||

    No, it was Congress who did that, with Nixon's signature. And although changes in the controls can't be done by formal executive order, if the executive orders the appropriate cabinet officers to do so or be fired, it will be done.

  • Duncan20903||

    The POTUS also has very broad power to pardon anyone convicted in Federal Court. It was Jimmy Carter's blanket pardon of the draft dodgers in 1977 which precipitated the end of involuntary conscription for military duty in the U.S.

    It's yet another patent absurdity to try to paint the POTUS as impotent.

  • Robert||

    No, the draft had ended with the repeal of the Selective Service Act in 1973, or with the end of the call-ups in 1971, depending how you count.

  • John Galt||

    Since that is true of pretty much every psychoactive substance that large numbers of people are interested in consuming, the implications of Cohen's principle extend beyond marijuana.

    Try telling that to the "It's a natural herb" marijuana supremacist crowd. They may not be worse than the typical drug warrior, but they're at least twice the hypocrites.

  • kevin_hunt||

    No one has ever died from marijuana. That's the main difference between the 'natural herb' and the other drugs you are referring to.

  • entropy||

    Well no one has ever died from LSD or shrooms either.

  • Robert||

    Very difficult to kill yourself with benzodiazepines too, as many would-be suiciders have learned.

  • ChrisO||

    Forget it. The Emperor has far too much important business on his agenda.

  • Robert||

    repealing marijuana prohibition is not something Obama can do on his own.


    He could, but only if he acted ruthlessly. He would have to pull whatever strings he had via both the att'y gen'l and sec'y of HHS to get them to decontrol marijuana in from the schedules of controlled substances. Cabinet members serve at his pleasure, so that should be enough leverage, I think. He can't remove cannabis from the list of drugs in the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act that can be dispensed only by prescription, but that applies only to medical marijuana in interstate commerce, and even there he can press the sec'y to declare any particular prepar'n of cannabis to be "non-habit-forming" and thus exempt from that list.

  • Robert||

    Actually a president who acts ruthlessly enough could accomplish anything political legally. He could simply have his opponents assassinated and pardon all the assassins. He could declare that intention in advance and that'd get things done in a hurry; the only way to stop him would be by assassinating him.

    Nothing's illegal until a judge says so, and if you can kill the judge before he says so, it's not illegal.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement