Drug Policy

'A Very Heated Agreement'

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The Donald and Paula Smith Family Foundation has finally posted video (scroll down a bit for the link) from January's medical marijuana "debate" between former Republican congressman Bob Barr and Drug Policy Alliance Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann. Knowing that Barr, a hard-line drug warrior when he served in Congress, has since joined the Libertarian Party and signed on as a lobbyist for the Marijuana Policy Project, you may not be surprised to hear that he believes states should be free to set their own policies regarding the medical use of marijuana. Still, the video is worth a look as evidence of Barr's continuing ideological evolution.

Barr drew a distinction between the wisdom of permitting medical (or recreational) use of marijuana and the proper role of state governments in making that determination, likening the issue to gay marriage. Just as one can oppose the Federal Marriage Amendment (as Barr does) without endorsing gay marriage, he said, one can oppose federal attempts to override state medical marijuana policies without endorsing pot smoking. He criticized the Supreme Court's approval of such meddling in Gonzales v. Raich, saying it relied on a ridiculously elastic definition of interstate commerce. "It's an issue of states' rights," he said. "It's an issue of personal liberty. I hope…we can continue the process of moving our country back to the position where the dissent in the Raich case tells us we should have been."

Barr's position did not leave Nadelmann much to disagree with. "It's barely a debate," Nadelmann said after Barr's opening statement. "It's almost a discussion." He agreed that states should be "laboratories of democracy," that the balance of power has swung much too far toward the center, and that the federal government is overbearing in many areas. But he said he was "torn on the broader issue of federal [power] and states' rights," recalling (predictably) that defenders of Jim Crow claimed the "states' rights" banner. He did not draw a distinction between federal laws against private racial discrimination, which do depend on a broad reading of the Commerce Clause, and federal action to stop state-sponsored discrimination, which is grounded in the Civil War amendments.

"Ultimately," Nadelmann said, "this issue for me is not primarily about states' rights. The issue for me is primarily about human rights." He said states should not be intefering with medical marijuana use either. "If the federal government wanted to move ahead on this issue," he said, "I would be delighted with that as well." Moving beyond the narrow issue of medical marijuana, he said (as he often does) that people should not be punished simply because of the substances they choose to put in their bodies, whether for medical or recreational purposes.

Barr, by contrast, dodged a question about where he stands on state laws against drug use. But he questioned marijuana's classification as a Schedule I drug under federal law, and he noted that "the power to control these substances" is a "gateway power" that leads to bigger government and escalating violations of civil liberties, saying the war on drugs resembles the war on terrorism in that respect. (How odd that Barr was so quick to see the threat to civil liberties posed by the fight against terrorism, which is aimed at protecting people from aggression, but so slow to see the threat to civil liberties posed by the war on drugs, which is aimed at protecting people from their own bad choices.)

"I almost feel like I'm debating myself," Nadelmann said toward the end, to which Barr replied, "I hope you win." The moderator called it "a very heated agreement."