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December 07, 2011

How the CSA Became Omnibus Drug Prohibition

A friend sent me the URL of an article in Monday’s Huffington Post: its author, drug policy wonk Kevin Sabet, is an outspoken opponent of medical marijuana. He had cited our paper on pot applicants in a piece criticizing the CMA’s recent decision to endorse legalization of marijuana. My immediate response was that Sabet was being dishonest; as a drug policy “expert,” he certainly should have recognized that my position was very different from his simply from reading our paper, yet he cited us as supporting his position. Had he really read ours? Or was he simply padding his bibliography?

With respect to the CMA decision; although justified by a curiously self-protective logic, it is welcome, correct, and long overdue. I've only had time to skim the summary, but it clearly recognizes the lack of appropriate studies before "marijuana" was made illegal. That the conservative CMA has been the first state association to do so is also important.

15 years spent studying drug policy issues, the last 10 of which included recording histories from over 6000 applicants, have convinced me that the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 was the critical error that converted a failing and mistaken, but relatively tolerable federal drug policy into the expensive, punitive and dogma-driven tragedy now known as the “War on Drugs.”

The CSA's key elements were Richard Nixon’s desire to intensify the punishment of cannabis use after the Marijuans Tax Act had been nullified in 1969 by the Supreme Court in the Leary case. Another essential element was Attorney General John Mitchell's articulation of a Constitutional justification for the CSA now known as Schedule one. Apparently, because the Congressional drafting committee had its own concerns about cannabis, Nixon was prevailed upon to appoint the blue-ribbon Shafer Commission to study its potential medical benefits. However, when the Shafer Commission finally reported in March, 1972, its unexpected recommendation that cannabis be studied irritated Nixon so much that he buried their report and the studies were never done. I doubt Dr. Sabet even realizes the irony of his position: he's urging delay of research a medical organization has belatedly realized should have been done before the CSA was passed over forty years ago. The final irony is that his reasons are the same as the ones that troubled the original Congressmen: there is still not enough known about the purported medicinal benefits of cannabis.

Beyond that convoluted irony, Sabet ignores (or is unaware of) two additional realities: Most importantly, the Nixon-Mitchell CSA (which has evolved into drug-by-drug prohibitions imposed administratively by attorneys general) passed easily in 1970 and was later implemented in the worst possible way: by executive orders; the DEA in 1973, and NIDA in 1974. Because the global criminal drug markets created and protected by the CSA have been expanding steadily, so have the budgets, political power, and economic influence of the Agencies created to implement and defend the law.

Since becoming aware of Dr.Sabet, I have learned much more about him through his web site; he appears to be younger version of the academic drug policy analysts identified in an earlier entry. They are important for reformers to now about precisely because they provide academic cover for the drug war by treating it with undeserved respect.

I'll have much more to say about related issues in the near future.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at December 7, 2011 01:33 AM