Former U.S. President Bill Clinton is one of several prominent people who discuss the failure of the war on drugs in the new web documentary Breaking the Taboo.
Many news outlets have covered the fact that the former president is shown on screen saying the war on drugs "hasn't worked." But in an interesting segment that seems to have so far gone unnoticed by the press, Clinton says, about a third of the way into the film:
We could have fighting and killing over cigarettes if we made it a felony to sell a cigarette or smoke one, so we legalize them. If all you do is try to find a police or a military solution to the problem, a lot of people die and it doesn't solve the problem.
To be sure, President Clinton isn't seen explicitly endorsing the legalization of marijuana or any other currently illegal drug in the film, and we don't know what he said just before or just after the above snippet. We also don't know what question from the filmmakers prompted him to utter these words.
But he did use the L-word -- legalize -- in an unmistakably positive context in a documentary about the failure of drug prohibition. By giving an analogy about cigarettes, then saying "we legalize them" and following that up by talking about the violence that is caused by a law enforcement- and interdiction-focused response to drug problems, President Clinton is at the very least giving a serious head nod to the idea that "legalization" of other drugs is worth giving some consideration to.
This is very significant, coming from a former president who ramped up the war on drugs during his two terms. He elevated the office of drug czar to Cabinet-level status. He launched "Plan Colombia," an expensive and offensive effort to eradicate drug crops that only succeeded in pushing cultivation further into precious areas of the rainforest. And, his administration reacted forcefully to the legalization of medical marijuana in California and other states in the 1990s; at the time, Clinton drug czar Barry McCaffrey tried to punish doctors who discuss medical marijuana with their patients by taking away their DEA prescribing licenses (luckily the courts put a stop to that on First Amendment grounds).
Despite this horrendous track record on drug policy during his years in office, Clinton did say in an exit interview in late 2000 with Rolling Stone magazine that "most small amounts of marijuana have been decriminalized in some places, and should be." Earlier this year he told the International AIDS Conference that we need to treat drug issues "as a public health problem as opposed to a criminal justice problem."
His remarks in Breaking the Taboo seem to be the closest he's come to addressing the question of legalization in recent years, albeit not directly.
Meanwhile, his wife, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was recently asked by the Costa Rican ambassador to the U.S. about whether the war on drugs is winnable. She responded that while she "respect[s] those in the region who believe strongly that [legalization] would end the problem" of drug market violence, she is "not convinced of that, just speaking personally."
It seems that Secretary Clinton left herself some wiggle room with respect to eventually supporting marijuana reform, likely being aware that warming up to the issue would help her appeal to Democrats and especially younger voters in a possible 2016 presidential primary race. That other possible 2016 Democratic candidate, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, has been actively pushing to clarify and expand his state's existing marijuana decriminalization law, going so far as to tell state legislators he wouldn't allow a pay raise for them until they acted on marijuana.
No one knows what possible future presidential candidate Clinton might do on marijuana reform. But for now, enterprising reporters should make it a point to ask the former President Clinton to elaborate on his views about legalization. And, perhaps even more importantly, journalists should ask him how he thinks the current president, Barack Obama, should respond to the new marijuana legalization laws in Colorado and Washington state.
Surely the 44th president could stand to learn a thing or two about how the histrionic federal overreaching of the 42nd president's administration in the wake of the first-ever state medical marijuana laws didn't exactly put a stop to the movement to end prohibition. All it did achieve was uncertainty and instability for medical marijuana patients and providers while sending people to prison who don't belong there. Now that 18 states and the District of Columbia have medical marijuana laws on the books, and two have legalized marijuana for adult use outright, the chasm between federal law and state policy is increasingly untenable.
President Obama has the opportunity to lead on this issue in a way that would provide clarity, allow for states to set their own marijuana polices and be enormously politically popular. President Clinton can and should help his successor to realize this. His remarks in Breaking the Taboo are a good start, but there's so much more that can and should be said.
Tom Angell is founder and chairman of Marijuana Majority (http://www.MarijuanaMajority.com).
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