I don’t know what act the President is in when it comes to criminal justice reform theatre. His schizophrenic rhetoric makes it hard to pin down what he believes about justice. And perhaps that is a skill from decades as a politician that he brings to the White House. From talking about strengthening community policing through funding with puppet strings attached while still appeasing the Defund the Police crowd, to wiping out drug convictions with the stroke of a pen, the President who is often accused of mumbling still manages to talk out of both sides of his mouth. The latest bold move for the President is a paint-roller application of his pardon power to those convicted in federal court of possession and use of marijuana.
An interesting side note that appeared in one report on the pardon is that the White House acknowledged that no one was actually currently in federal prison for simple possession of the drug. Reminds me of the old joke: “Why don’t you see elephants hiding in trees? Because they are very good at it!” If we’re not seeing masses of people sent to prison for marijuana possession, it must be because we’re not looking hard enough.
One of the arguments frequently heard in the debate about marijuana legalization and decriminalization is that it is unfair to be sending people to prison for possession of marijuana. Possession of personal use amounts of marijuana will get a person to jail almost never these days. The proliferation of so-called medical marijuana legalization has made detection and enforcement of marijuana laws remaining on the books very difficult, so marijuana legalization has diluted other drug enforcement efforts.
There is certainly room for debate and reevaluation of law enforcement’s role in dealing with marijuana. At a time when sugary drinks are being criminalized, cigarettes have been demonized, and cheeseburgers are blamed for climate change, the increasingly potent marijuana plant is being elevated. We were relieved when we found out that Bill Clinton didn’t inhale, amused when Obama hinted that he was kicked out of Disneyland for smoking pot, and forgiving when Bush 43 talked about reforming from his drinking and drugged partying.
We’ve recognized the power and tragedy of drug addiction and have abandoned theories about choice in favor of mental health and socio-economic inequities. Efforts are underway to legalize psychedelic drugs in the hopes of relieving some categories of mental illness. When it comes to medicine, we are told to trust science, but we see the imprint of political maneuvering behind every decision.
What do we want out of our society as reflected in what we tell our law enforcement officers? We’ve seen largely unreported but dramatic ill effects of marijuana legalization. The idea that it’s just weed and we need to stop sending people to prison and if it’s legal nobody will want to do it and we can send people to treatment instead of jail….etc etc etc hasn’t slowed marijuana use or addiction.
The promise of marijuana as a cure for PTSD and a good alternative to hard drugs has yielded very limited success. Whatever good, validated research can find for positive uses of marijuana as a remedy for illness should be happily embraced just as any medical advancement should. But so far, the plusses don’t seem to outweigh the minuses. We can count the dollars from tax revenue on marijuana sales but we cannot count the dollars spent on the shadowed cost of widening marijuana use.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that 30% of those who use marijuana may have some degree of marijuana use disorder, more among those who started using before age 18. We all know about the dramatic rise in the potency of marijuana. What we don’t know is the effect that more widespread use of these more potent kinds of marijuana available in many different means of ingestion has done for traffic crashes, workplace productivity, and mental illness. Despite the image of the laid-back pot user, research is clear that marijuana use is associated with paranoia and psychosis.
Untaxed and illegal marijuana growing operations and sales have not been slowed by legal marijuana. Major environmental damage from unauthorized grows, whether on private land or our national forests, consists of diverted water use and harsh chemicals used in the process. Because of high taxation on legal pot, the import of unlawful marijuana production results in ongoing smuggling and trafficking even in states like Colorado and California with a long history of tolerance and decriminalization of marijuana.
Research on both the possible benefits and the known harms of marijuana use needs to continue despite the misguided belief that marijuana is a basically harmless, natural weed. We also need a clearer understanding of the true impact of drug enforcement on the criminal justice system. Biden seems not to understand that while almost no one spends time in any jail for mere possession of the drug, plea bargains may reflect this as the offender’s conviction even if the individual committed must more serious offenses.
The President’s bad habit of taking executive action to sprinkle favors like fairy dust such as this pardon effort without looking at individual cases (not to mention transferring college debt to all working Americans and releasing oil reserves to bring down prices before the mid-term elections) is pre-election theatre. Some may benefit and some injustices might be righted, but we will never really know. The pardon power of the President was to right wrongs that slipped through the justice system or to present a clean slate to those who deserve it in some extraordinary way, not to gain applause and votes as this move clearly was.
A review of our drug policy is a good thing, but we can only hope that we are tracking the outcomes so that we don’t throw the baby out with the bongwater.