Confronted and Owned: Anti-Marijuana Zealot Bill Bennett

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It is hardly
surprising that former drug czar William Bennett would, in his CNN.com
op-ed
, oppose any changes to America’s criminalization
of marijuana. But it is surprising that he would lump Barney Frank
and Ron Paul’s proposal to allow states the opportunity to
enact their own marijuana policy with the effort to legalize drugs.

Let’s
be clear: HR
2306
, the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2011,
proposed
by Reps. Barney Frank and Ron Paul
, does not “legalize
drugs” or even so much as legalize marijuana. Rather, this
legislation removes the power to prosecute minor marijuana offenders
from the federal government and relinquishes this authority to state
and local jurisdictions. In other words, HR 2306 is just the sort
of rebuke to the “nanny state” that conservatives like
Bennett otherwise support.

The House bill
mimics changes enacted by Congress to repeal the federal prohibition
of alcohol. Passage of this measure would remove the existing conflict
between federal law and the laws of those 16 states that already
allow for the limited use of marijuana under a physician’s
supervision.

It would also
permit states that wish to fully legalize (for adults) and regulate
the responsible use, possession, production and intrastate distribution
of marijuana to be free to do so without federal interference. In
recent years, several states, including California and Massachusetts,
have considered taking such actions either legislatively or by ballot
initiative. It is likely that several additional states will be
considering this option in 2012, including Colorado and Washington.
The residents and lawmakers of these states should be free to explore
these alternate policies, including medicalization, decriminalization
and legalization, without running afoul of the federal law or the
whims of the Department of Justice.

Of course,
just as many states continued to criminalize the sale and consumption
of alcohol after the federal government’s lifting of alcohol
prohibition, many states, if not most, might continue to maintain
criminal sanctions on the use of marijuana.

But there is
no justification for the federal government to compel them to do
so. Just as state and local governments are free to enact their
own policies about the sale and use of alcohol – a mind-altering,
potentially toxic substance that harms the user more than marijuana
– they should be free to adopt marijuana policies that best
reflect the wishes and mores of their citizens.

Does Bill Bennett
believe that state and local governments cannot be trusted with
making such decisions on their own?

Speaking during
an online town hall in January, President Obama acknowledged the
subject of legalizing and regulating marijuana was a “legitimate
topic for debate,” even as he expressed his opposition. Yet
Texas Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee,
recently boasted that he would not even consider scheduling HR 2306
for a public hearing.

There might
be another reason people like Smith and Bennett will go to such
lengths to try to stifle public discussion of the matter. To do
so would be to shine light on the fact that the federal criminalization
of marijuana has failed to reduce the public’s demand for cannabis,
and it has imposed enormous fiscal and human costs upon the American
people.

Further, this
policy promotes disrespect for the law and reinforces ethnic and
generational divides between the public and law enforcement. Annual
data published in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, and compiled
by NORML, finds that police have made more than 20 million arrests
for marijuana violations since 1970, nearly 90% of them for marijuana
possession offenses only.

It is time
to stop ceding control of the marijuana market to unregulated, criminal
entrepreneurs and allow states the authority to enact common sense
regulations that seek to govern the adult use of marijuana in a
fashion similar to alcohol.

In Bennett’s
own words, “We have an illegal drug abuse epidemic in this
country.” How is such a conclusion anything but a scathing
indictment of the present policy? After 70 years of failure it is
time for an alternative approach. The “Ending Federal Marijuana
Prohibition Act of 2011? is an ideal first step.

This originally
appeared on CNN and is reprinted with permission of the author.

Paul Armentano
[send him mail] is the deputy
director of NORML and the NORML Foundation. He is also the co-author
of the new book Marijuana
Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People To Drink?
(Chelsea
Green Publishing, 2009).

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