May 22 2009 – Bits of evidence keep turning up suggesting that the country is ready – more ready than most politicians are yet – to rethink outright prohibition as the only way to deal with certain drugs or substances. Some elements of the government seem ready to take baby steps in the direction of a more sensible approach.

On Monday the U.S. Supreme Court said it would not take up a challenge by San Diego and San Bernardino county governments to California’s landmark medical marijuana law, passed by the voters in 1996. Last week Gil Kerlikowske, President Obama’s pick to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy (the position colloquially referred to as “drug czar”) said it was time for the government to abandon the “war on drugs” metaphor.

For three years San Diego County has resisted the state law passed by the Legislature to implement Prop. 215, the voter-approved medical marijuana law. SB 420 set up a voluntary medical marijuana identity card program to be administered by county health departments. San Diego County resisted doing so, arguing that federal law still prohibits marijuana and facilitating medical marijuana patients would put county officials in violation of federal law.

That argument was rejected by the superior court, and affirmed by a California appellate court. The California Supreme Court declined to hear the county’s appeal, so the county threw a “hail Mary” pass to the U.S. Supreme Court. That high court declined to make the catch.

In doing so, it affirmed the constitutional principle of federalism that permits states to have different approaches, especially on health and medical issues, than the national government does. California (and 13 other states) treat the medicinal use of marijuana differently (and more intelligently) than federal law does. The court’s message for foot-dragging officials: Deal with it.

Counties and cities are subdivisions of the state government, and the duty of officials at those levels is to enforce state law, even when there appears to be a contradiction with federal law. Law enforcement and other officials who have argued a duty to uphold federal law against medical marijuana users and providers now have no legal leg to stand upon.

Federal officials still have the power to enforce their prohibitory laws against medical marijuana patients and providers, but U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has announced that the Drug Enforcement Administration will no longer raid medical marijuana dispensaries unless there’s evidence they are violating state law as well. Trying to nullify state law by that backdoor method is simply not a priority for this administration. Good.

Kerlikowske’s decision to abandon the “war on drugs” metaphor because “We’re not at war with people in this country” is a welcome symbolic move, but it will be hollow unless it is followed by policy changes that will likely involve changes in federal law. As long as the national government has Prohibition-styled laws against marijuana and other drugs, the only available methods of trying to enforce them are warlike.

Kerlikowske may channel more funds to treatment and prevention than to enforcement, but if he is serious about ending the state of war he must recommend changes in the law as well. Source.

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