Marijuana: Obama administration has done poor job of talking about drug policy, czar says

Just over two months since the signing of Amendment 64, a direct challenge to federal marijuana policy, the Obama administration still has provided no guidance to Colorado about whether a challenge to the law is forthcoming. As a result, observers searching for clues about the feds' thinking are left to read tea leaves -- or analyze comments from officials like U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske. But do remarks published this week suggest a softer line on the pot question? One marijuana advocate has some ideas about that. This week, MacLean's, a Canadian magazine and news site, published a sprawling Q&A with Kerlikowske. Naturally, issues in Canada take up a considerable portion of the conversation, but many of them can be applied to situations in Colorado. Consider the following exchange about whether visitors with marijuana on their mind are a good or bad thing:

Q: In Canada, a large party of Liberal party delegates voted in favour of marijuana legalization. The party issued a report speculating that thousands of Canadians could find employment related to marijuana and pot tourism -- as Americans would flock north. What do you make of that?

A: Well, I think of the experience of the Netherlands -- they've had marijuana cafés for decades and in the last few years the government decided to close hundreds. One of the primary reasons they cite is marijuana tourism -- people coming in from Germany, Belgium and other places have caused crime problems and other difficulties.

As this response indicates, Kerlikowske hardly comes across as a pot cheerleader in the piece. He rejects the suggestion that Obama's evolution on the subject of gay marriage might portend a similar shift when it comes to weed ("I don't look at marijuana as a human right, or a civil right, or even in the same venue as gay marriage," he says), portrays decriminalization as a guarantor of more problems, and stresses that "you'll continue to see enforcement against distributors and large-scale growers as the Justice Department has outlined."

Still, one sentence spoken by Kerlikowske jumps out to Tom Angell, chairman of the organization Marijuana Majority and a close follower of events in Colorado. At one point, he says, "The administration has not done a particularly good job of, one, talking about marijuana as a public health issue, and number two, talking about what can be done and where we should be headed on our drug policy."

Angell's take?

Continue for more of our post about U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske. Via e-mail, Angell writes, "This is what I've been saying for a long time: The administration has no clue what it wants to do on drug policy despite its many vague pronouncements that we need a 'balanced approach.' No wonder their medical marijuana enforcement policy, for example, seems so damn confused."

Of late, Angell has become something of a Kerlikowske translator, or at least interpreter. Last month, as we reported, he saw positives in the drug czar saying that following the recent election, "it is clear that we're in the midst of a serious national conversation about marijuana."

Does he think Kerlikowske's latest comment suggests he's moderating his position on marijuana?

"While I know that the drug czar and I differ on whether we should replace the 'war on drugs' with legalization," Angell responds, "I get the sense that he is frustrated that folks higher up in the White House aren't giving drug policy reform the attention it deserves."

Angell also highlights Kerlikowske's frequent references to marijuana as being a public-health problem as opposed to a criminal dilemma -- the same line taken by Project SAM, an anti-marijuana legalization organization fronted by former Representative Patrick Kennedy that launched in Denver last month.

Indeed, one of Kerlikowske's quotes echoes a statement made to us by Project SAM principal Kevin Sabet, from the University of Florida. Kerlikowske tells MacLean's, "The 'war on drugs' is a good bumper sticker, but we know that the drug problem is unbelievably complex," while Sabet said, "We don't want our ideas to be able to fit on a bumper sticker. 'Legalize Pot' and 'Lock 'Em Up' both fit on a bumper sticker, but what we're doing doesn't."

For his part, Angell focuses on the contradiction between the drug czar's words and administration policies.

"Kerlikowske may well be sincere in his desire to see us move toward a more health-focused approach," he allows, "but the President keeps submitting drug-control budgets to Congress that continue the emphasis on funding punishment and interdiction programs over treatment and prevention programs."

Angell's conclusion: "It's about time someone at ONDCP [Office of National Drug Control Policy] started publicly agitating for the administration to match its policies to its rhetoric about the need to have a 'balanced approach' to drug control.'"

More from our Marijuana archive: "Marijuana: Project SAM touts public-health approach to pot in fighting legalization."

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