In an apparent attempt to get out ahead of the growing legalization movement which has already notched significant victories in Colorado and Washington, US drug czar Gil Kerlikowske spoke out in favor of a “different approach” to federal cannabis policy which would focus on drug treatment and education rather than imprisonment in an attempt to reduce pot use.
The nation’s top drug cop opposed reform efforts such as medical marijuana laws, saying that they “send a terrible message” to American youth. To support his conclusion, he used the traditional argument that cannabis was not an FDA-approved drug and therefore was not truly medicine: “We have the world’s most renowned process to decide what is medicine and what should go in peoples’ bodies. And marijuana has never been through that process.”
But Kerlikowske’s argument is deeply misleading. One of the biggest reasons why cannabis has not received FDA approval is that US law permits only one grower (the University of Mississippi) to operate legally, and forbids that producer to provide the pot to anyone except the federal government. With the exception of a few unorthodox shipments, all of the government’s weed goes through NIDA to studies designed to quantify the harms, not usefulness, of the drug. In short, pot isn’t FDA-approved because FDA approval requires the applicant to have supplies of the drug on hand for testing, which under federal law no concern except the federal government is allowed to do. This is the Catch-22 situation which compelled the authors of Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know to declare that “the official opponents of ‘marijuana as medicine’ are hardly acting in good faith when they argue that it hasn’t passed FDA scrutiny” (p. 100).
But while disingenuous rhetoric about cannabis law is nothing new in the US, the urgings of the nation’s highest-ranking drug enforcer to hew away from the 75-year federal focus on imprisonment reveals an enormous shift in the Obama administration’s thinking on marijuana. Just last month, a Montana dispensary provider narrowly missed a sentence of up to 90 years in federal prison because he had the gall to stand up for his constitutional rights. But Kerlikowske’s remarks reveal that Obama, who has remained curiously silent on the legalization votes in Washington and Colorado, has turned decisively away from such draconian policies. Regardless of whether Obama will allow coffee shops or large grow operations to open, cannabis activists have scored a major political victory.