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DEA Is Absolutely Losing the War on Marijuana Politics

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This past Saturday, the LA Times published a fantastic article, “DEA may be losing the war on marijuana politics,” outlining the federal agency’s downfall from undisputed moral high ground to the wrong side of history. It explains that members of Congress from both parties are finally catching up to the public and supporting marijuana reform, and how DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart’s refusal to support sensible reforms has led to sharp criticism from Congress and even the White House. But I don’t think the title goes far enough: there’s no longer any doubt that the agency’s propaganda has failed. The DEA is absolutely, indisputably, hands-down losing the war on marijuana politics.

The article outlined some of the DEA’s many recent troubles, from being forced to back down after nonsensically seizing a shipment of hemp seeds from the University of Kentucky, to the House voting to block funding for federal intervention in states’ medical marijuana programs. As if that were not enough, since the LA Times piece went to print, the DEA and other Drug Warriors lost skirmishes — and even a few battles — in the war on marijuana politics literally every single day:

  • Sunday: US Representative Andy Harris agreed that opposing marijuana decriminalization is politically unpopular. Harris has made headlines for attempting to block DC’s decriminalization law, passed by a 10-1 vote in March and supported by 75% of residents, from taking effect. Yet an article in Sunday’s New York Times showed that even Harris realizes that far from an easy win, blocking drug policy reform is becoming the third rail that supporting it used to be, even among conservatives:

    Mr. Catania accused Mr. Harris of seeking to enhance his bona fides in a campaign for leadership of the Republican Study Committee, a group that seeks to pull the House further right....

    He denied a political motive in opposing marijuana decriminalization. “If I were looking to advance my position among the broad spectrum of Republicans, this is probably not the way to do it,” he said.

    Harris is absolutely right — 69% of Republican voters oppose jail time for marijuana possession. But a YouGov poll released this week showed that 52% of Republicans nationwide even support Colorado’s laws regulating and taxing marijuana, far beyond the relatively modest reform Harris was trying to block.

  • Monday: The White House called marijuana policy a “states’ rights” issue and opposed federal interference in reforms. In a statement hailed as groundbreaking by the Drug Policy Alliance, the Obama Administration came out in opposition to Rep. Harris’ amendment to block DC’s marijuana decriminalization law. A victory of its own, the Administration took it a step further by using broad language that signals even stronger support for states’ efforts to regulate marijuana than before:

    Similarly, the Administration strongly opposes the language in the bill preventing the District from using its own local funds to carry out locally- passed marijuana policies, which again undermines the principles of States' rights and of District home rule. Furthermore, the language poses legal challenges to the Metropolitan Police Department's enforcement of all marijuana laws currently in force in the District.

  • Tuesday: The DC Council passed legislation to dramatically improve its medical marijuana program, eliminating its restrictive list of qualifying conditions and instead allowing doctors to recommend the drug for “any condition for which treatment with medical marijuana would be beneficial, as determined by the patient’s physician.” This reform, which takes medical decisions away from politicians and gives it to doctors, is a huge win for patients.

  • Wednesday: The US House voted to allow banks to do business with state-legal marijuana businesses. Following May’s 219-189 vote to block funding for federal law enforcement going after licensed marijuana establishments, this amendment — which passed by an even more decisive 231-192 — would block federal funding from being used to penalize banks for doing business with such establishments. If made law, this will increase the financial and physical security of marijuana businesses, as risk-averse banks’ fear of legal repercussions has made marijuana a cash-only industry.

  • Thursday: Marijuana decriminalization took effect in the nation’s capital. Despite Rep. Harris’ attempts to block its implementation, DC’s marijuana decriminalization law took effect Thursday at 12:01 a.m. It removed criminal penalties for the possession of under one ounce of marijuana, replacing it with confiscation and a $25 fine, while possession of over an ounce or smoking in public remain arrestable offenses. As long as police don’t mimic NYPD and abuse the law’s language to continue making arrests, this will help address the city’s massive racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

There were many other victories this past week, such as reformers in Santa Fe taking another step towards decriminalizing marijuana in the city, but with so many I was forced to focus on the highlights. But these alone show just how decisively the DEA is losing the war on marijuana politics — I challenge them to showcase their victories from this week, and we’ll see who has a better list.