Time to Move Beyond Outdated Models

By Daniel Isenstein

I just read NORML Executive Director Keith Stroup’s blog explaining his take on the current state of cannabis legalization efforts. Keith has been an important voice in cannabis law reform advocacy for decades. His hard work and efforts are greatly appreciated. However, I have to disagree with the premise of his article.

Stroup is correct in his observation that what will ultimately drive cannabis legalization will be economics. However, his analogy to the gambling industry and assertion that it is primarily the government and “morality” at the nexus of this log jam is outdated thinking. Yes, the federal government is missing out on a huge revenue stream by prohibiting cannabis in all forms and failing to generate tax revenue from its sale. But cannabis prohibition today is not a function of some government intention to legislate morality. Nor will it be potential tax revenue that moves the government to finally act.

Stroup neglects to acknowledge the corrupting influence the pharmaceutical industry and agribusiness has had on this debate. For starters, the head of the FDA is often pulled from the executive ranks of one of these industries. This is a classic example of conflicting interests. Nobody who makes their living developing and selling real drugs for a living is going to undercut their industry by legalizing a plant that has so many uses. The same paradigm works for someone from agribusiness. The entire industry is based on distancing consumers from the producers and introducing as many value added processing steps as possible. The idea of a plant you can grow in your back yard garden replacing even a fraction of their market share is frightening.

Stroup also continues to debate the idea that somehow the government is motivated by “morality” and not revenue. This is continues old school alcohol prohibition thinking that is genuinely out of touch with the times. The government does continue to trot out moral platitudes designed to make it seem like they are protecting people from themselves. However, even many elected officials realize repeating false warnings is counterproductive. Many in congress have called for the DEA to recommend rescheduling cannabis, but no one has shown the courage to step to the fore of the pack and introduce reform legislation in advance from a blessing from the DEA.

The DEA is no different than any other government agency. It is traditionally directed by someone appointed from the law enforcement/incarceration industry. The DEA is not going to recommend anything that reduces its budget or perceived mandate. That is not the nature of bureaucracy

In short, the will of the people is being held hostage by a system of filling cabinet positions that assures that the fox will be watching the henhouse. It is a sad paradox. On the one hand appointing someone to head the FDA who has no background in food and drug safety is to appoint someone incapable of executing the job. On the other hand, once an industry insider has been appointed to lead the bureaucracy they generally hide in a safety zone of self- preservation for the bureaucracy as opposed to the general welfare.

Some of that may be by design and some of that is just falling back on what you already know. But most cabinet appointees spend most of their professional careers in a specific industry or field. Once in power they have 4-8 years in a position that impacts policy. At the end of their tenure many of these people return to Washington as industry lobbyists. In short their time in power is used to set up their own revenue streams for after they leave office. If it means that sick people can’t grow a plant because Pfizer is finishing trials on a drug that will make the industry millions what do you think happens?

The current path towards legalization runs through the pharmaceutical and agribusiness industries. When those giants have a model that protects their profits they will pour resources into lobbying the government that will make your head spin. In that sense our democracy has been hijacked as our elected representatives have entrusted these vital policy decisions to appointees who have no obligation to the voter. This abdication of power by elected officials to industry run government bureaucracies allows the elected officials to hide behind worn out and discredited lines like the DEA recently regurgitated about how “there hasn’t been enough scientific research” to reschedule marijuana at this time.

That is the reality of the new war drugs. It’s not about tax revenue or morality. Because nothing is more immoral than denying a sick person the best medicine.

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