America's Bipartisan Reefer Madness

Both Democrats and Republicans support the pointless federal crackdown on medical marijuana


Some Oakland, California residents are furious that on the same day that a gunman murdered seven people at Oikos University, armed SWAT teams raided a different university less than a mile away where peaceful activities were being conducted. Federal agents also went to the home of Oaksterdam University's owner Richard Lee, the sponsor of a nearly successful 2010 California initiative that had received the public denunciation of the feds during the initiative campaign.

This is something that should have been seized upon by the Republican presidential candidates. It had all the elements that played into the GOP narrative about President Barack Obama. How many times have we heard that Obama is obliterating states' rights, shredding the Constitution, abusing his authority to punish political enemies, backing away from campaign promises, and misallocating federal resources?

And yet the Oaksterdam raid passed without causing a firestorm from GOP activists and candidates. The reason: Oaksterdam teaches students the cannabis trade—growing marijuana to serve California's medical marijuana industry, an industry that had been flourishing until crackdowns from the Obama administration have driven many dispensaries out of business. Lee's 2010 initiative would have legalized marijuana.

Republicans won't stand up for the right of California to enforce a set of laws that the GOP candidates find offensive, regardless of their discussions of states' rights when it comes to the national health-care law and other issues.

"The raid demonstrated the ongoing tension between the federal government and states/municipalities willing to permit some marijuana use," reported the International Business Times. "Medical marijuana is legal in California, and Oakland offered a glimpse of what broader legalization might look like by passing laws to tax and regulate dispensaries. But the federal Controlled Substances Act holds that cannabis is a dangerous drug with no medical value, ranking it alongside substances like heroin and mescaline."

Despite his campaign vows to make marijuana enforcement a low priority, the president has stepped up raids on these clinics and has been remarkably successful, if one considers tormenting sick people, shutting down tax-paying businesses, confiscating private property, and threatening to jail people a success. In the Sacramento area, where I live, these clinics were common. I would see small pharmacies, where customers would go to purchase their "medicine," and the world went on without incident.

Oakland officials encouraged the development of the cannabis industry, viewing it as a tax-generating enterprise that provided extra money for public services including policing. I've driven by these shops in Oakland and they are far less troublesome than the liquor stores that dot the landscape of that crime-plagued city.

Marijuana foes have argued, despite strong evidence to the contrary, that medical marijuana is a sham—that cannabis has no medical properties and that the state's law is a fancy "work around" the federal drug laws. That's a position born of ignorance. I recall a past debate on the Orange County Board of Supervisors a few years ago. That board approved the issuance of marijuana cards after one supervisor explained how medical marijuana helped a cancer-stricken relative.

We shouldn't have to rely on personal experience to do the right thing. Freedom-loving people should be willing to let other people and their doctors make these decisions. I don't pry into the types of sleeping pills a doctor might prescribe to my neighbors. Yet there's something about marijuana that drives people crazy—a form of reefer madness that afflicts drug warriors rather than pot smokers.

No doubt, it's easy to get a medical-marijuana card in California. Many people with such cards suffer nothing worse than anxiety. One answer, then, would be to toughen up card issuance, not send para-military officials into peaceful businesses. The best answer would be to eliminate the sham altogether by legalizing marijuana use, which would provide a tax windfall and take a bite out of the Mexican Mafia's profits. It's not as if pot smokers can't easily buy marijuana on the black market.

Conservatives from an earlier era—i.e., William F. Buckley and Milton Friedman—championed drug legalization of all types. They understood that the drug war undermined freedom and civil liberties. Unlike today's religious right moralists and statists, they understood that government crackdowns do not make problems go away. Legalization is the best way to control something. As the cliché goes, one doesn't see Budweiser dealers shooting each other in the streets over territorial disputes.

Rick Santorum, who admits smoking marijuana in college, trashed former presidential contender Rick Perry after Perry said that marijuana is a states' rights issue. It's hard to believe that society would have been better served had Santorum spent a decade in jail rather than moving on the U.S. Senate. (Given some of his votes, I might stand corrected!) Mitt Romney rejects liberalized marijuana laws and walked away from a medical marijuana patient who questioned him about it. Obama pretends to be a civil libertarian, but has authorized the crack down.

These people are not serious or consistent. Whenever I bring up this constitutional matter, I'm barraged by Cheech and Chong-like reefer jokes, as if that's a substitute for an argument.

Despite their rhetoric, Republicans believe in the freedom of Americans to live any way they choose as long as that way conforms to the preferences of Republicans. They believe in states' rights as long as the states do things approved by the federal government, which is the same thing that Democrats believe in, except that the Democrats use different lingo to justify their authoritarian impulses.

In other words, don't expect the Oaksterdam outrage—or serious discussions of freedom and states' rights—to become a focal point of the presidential race.

Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.