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May 10, 2011

The Drug War: 1/3 of the Nixon Trifecta

In November 1996, California voters passed Proposition 215, a controversial initiative authorizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes, as defined by a licensed physician. Before the new law could take effect, then-federal Drug Czar, Barry McCaffrey went on national TV to threaten any physician who dared to discuss marijuana with a patient with loss of their federal DEA license. That move signaled two things: that the old issue of states rights versus federal power which had bedeviled American government since the Constitution went into effect in 1789 was still a huge bone of contention; also that implementation of the new law was still very much in doubt. The issue of implementation was resolved quickly when the Ninth Circuit US Court of Appeals ruled that the general’s edict was an unconstitutional breach of the First Amendment.

Rather than resolving the issue, that ruling simply marked the beginning of a controversy now in its fifteenth year and still marked by serious disagreement over multiple issues, but perhaps the one remaining stubbornly at the center and still unrecognized by most Americans is whether Medicine should be practiced by physicians or by the legal profession and- through them- by law enforcement agencies.

When one looks closely at the history of drug prohibition in the United States, it’s quite clear that it began with the Harrison Act of 1914, itself so controversial that it quickly generated several cases requiring Supreme Court adjudication within five years of its passage (Harrison was unanimously repudiated by Linder in 1925, but tragically that case was never cited). Unfortunately, the key decisions that ultimately controlled federal policy (all 5-4) were monumental mistakes that placed what should have been medical decisions firmly in the the hands of the judiciary and through them, law enforcement agencies. The process was continued by Harry Anslinger’s fanciful Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 and ultimately completed by Richard Nixon’s Controlled Substances Act of 1970 after it was fleshed out by his executive orders creating the DEA (1973) and NIDA (1974).

Thus ironically, did the most destructive president ever to occupy the White House complete the unwholesome trifecta (Watergate, extension of the Vietnam war to Laos and Cambodia, and the War on drugs) that became his legacy. He did so in the record time of six years before yielding to a hand-picked successor who would dutifully grant him a Presidential Pardon for the two that were actually crimes.

The Nixon legacy didn’t end there; time doesn’t permit a full recounting of the invidious influence of the drug war on subsequent administrations, including that of the present incumbent. To assume that it's merely a sideline, an affordable exercise in quasi-religious hyperbole, would be to miss its far greater significance.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at May 10, 2011 03:44 PM