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Media > Recent and Archival
September 12, 2011

Bummer: Barack Obama turns out to be just another drug warrior

By: Jacob Sullum

Reason Magazine

There were many researchers and activists who were optimistic when the early Obama administration promised to put science before politics in its approach to drug policy and regulation. Reason Magazine points out the disappointing facts in this in-depth cover article. Despite Obama’s claims that he would take a public health approach to drugs, he and his appointees in federal law enforcement agencies—including the DEA, which MAPS is currently taking to federal court over the agency’s refusal to permit much-needed medical marijuana research—have so far refused to do so.


The following is an excerpt. The full original article is available at http://reason.com/archives/2011/09/12/bummer.

‘Willfully Blind’ to Science

Obama’s advocacy of a “public health” approach to drugs based on science uncorrupted by politics has amounted to even less in practice than his pre-presidency qualms about harsh, racially skewed sentences. Although he had long advocated lifting the 1988 ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs, which he said “could dramatically reduce rates of infection among drug users,” his first budget kept the ban intact. It was Congress that later removed the restriction. “As far as we know, the White House did nothing to move Congress along,” says Allan Clear, executive director of the Harm Reduction Coalition. “The general sense is that the administration is scared of syringe exchange’s political taint. You can’t say this administration is serious about a) addressing HIV to the best of its ability and b) basing its drug policies in science while it holds good public health at arm’s length.”

Yet needle exchange, which Obama at least did not actively resist, is probably the strongest aspect of his supposedly science-based drug policy. It is hard to see the scientific rationale for “zero tolerance” laws that treat a driver who smoked pot a few days ago (but who still has detectable levels of marijuana metabolites in his urine or blood) like someone who polished off a pint of bourbon right before hitting the road—a policy the Obama administration advocates in the name of “combating drugged driving.” And the administration’s demand for increased scrutiny of doctors’ painkiller prescriptions unscientifically ignores the evidence that such crackdowns discourage medically appropriate pain treatment, leaving some patients in agony to prevent others from getting high.

The clearest indication of Obama’s readiness to sacrifice scientific integrity in the service of prohibitionist orthodoxy is the administration’s position on the medical benefits of marijuana. Eight days before Obama took office, the DEA rejected a petition from University of Massachusetts at Amherst plant scientist Lyle Craker, who wanted permission to grow marijuana for research purposes. The request was far from frivolous: The DEA licenses private producers of other controlled substances, such as MDMA and psilocybin, for scientific use but has always made an exception for marijuana, which can be legally grown only at a University of Mississippi farm that is operated under contract with the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an agency that is more interested in the hazards posed by cannabis than its potential benefits. Craker, backed by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), argued that the DEA should allow competition with the government’s pot farm to facilitate research by increasing the quality and variety of cannabis available to scientists. In 2007 DEA Administrative Law Judge Mary Ellen Bittner agreed. But on January 12, 2009, acting DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart overrode Bittner and denied Craker’s petition.

The incoming administration did not challenge Leonhart’s decision, and a year later Obama appointed her to head the DEA. Last March the ACLU filed a brief asking Leonhart to reconsider. “The government claims that marijuana offers no medical benefit to patients, and yet the government is simultaneously cutting off access to research material for scientific studies that seek to determine what medical benefit marijuana might have,” it said. “The result is that the federal government remains willfully blind to the possibility of scientific results that do not match its political preconceptions.” The ACLU argued that the government’s obstruction of research that could demonstrate marijuana’s therapeutic benefits contradicts Obama’s professed commitment to sound science.

Leonhart further illustrated the marijuana exception to that commitment in July, when she officially rejected a nine-year-old petition in which Americans for Safe Access, which supports the right of patients to use cannabis for medical purposes, asked the DEA to remove the plant from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, the law’s most restrictive category. Schedule I is supposedly reserved for drugs that have “a high potential for abuse,” “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States,” and no “accepted safety for use under medical supervision.” Marijuana is much safer than many less restricted drugs, it has clear medical applications, and no one seriously contends it has a higher “potential for abuse” than, say, cocaine, morphine, or methamphetamine, all of which are on Schedule II. The DEA’s marijuana decisions show politics continues to trump science under a president who promised the opposite.


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