By Ryan McMaken*
In the days following the 2016 election, there were already worrying signs that the Trump administration didn’t merely view the War on Drugs as a useful source of rhetoric to please some Conservatives. With the appointment of Jeff Sessions — who appears to be a true believer in the War on Drugs — the threat to federalism, states’s rights, and local control was all too real.
The fears continue to be stoked by the administration itself, and yesterday White House spokesman Sean Spicer announcing that “I do believe that you’ll see greater enforcement of [federal law against marijuana].”
So, in an administration where Trump’s promised health care reforms are anything but a done deal — and which is plagued with leaks and conflict with the US intelligence establishment — Spicer suggests the administration has enough extra time to ramp up prosecutions of American citizens for smoking a joint. The fact that 81 percent of all drug arrests are for simple possession means that yes, increasing federal enforcement is about arresting and prosecuting small-time users.
Spicer justifies this with the well-worn claim often made by Conservatives that “There is still a federal law that we need to abide by … when it comes to recreational marijuana and other drugs of that nature.”
At the core of this statement is the same hypocrisy that infects the entire right wing on the Drug War issue.
Conservatives like to talk a good game about states’s rights and local control when it comes to issues like gun laws and Obamacare, but federalism and the Constitution go right out the window on the drug issue.
This has long been obvious, and was solidified in federal court when Trump’s nominee to head the EPA, Scott Pruitt, sued Colorado in federal court when he was attorney general of Oklahoma. Pruitt and the GOP attorney general from Nebraska both attempted to get the federal court to render Colorado’s drug laws null and void — which would have essentially destroyed what’s left of federalism and states’s rights down to its foundations. Pruitt, however, was making this same argument at the very same time he was arguing that the states had the right to override Obamacare mandates.
But the hypocrisy does not stop there. Conservatives love to talk about following the “original intent” of the US Constitution and demanding the federal government do nothing that is not authorized by the Constitution. That, of course, is then conveniently forgotten on the drug issue.
Although Sean Spicer certainly won’t admit it, the “federal law we need to abide by” is not some federal statute passed by Congress about drugs. The law we need to abide by is found in the US Constitution — specifically the Tenth Amendment — where it clearly states that “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
So does the Constitution delegate to the United States government the power to regulate what sort of plants people eat, smoke, or grow? Here’s a hint: No, it doesn’t.
This refrain of Drug Warriors that those who don’t like the Drug War need to “change the law” before they can complain requires a willful ignorance of the law contained in the US Constitution itself.
Indeed, in more honest times, everyone knew the Constitution did not allow federal control of such matters which is why most everyone accepted that a Constitutional amendment was necessary to authorize federal prohibition of alcohol. It was only later that politicians realized they could just forget about all that Constitution stuff and pass federal statutes banning various substances at will.
Of course even if the Constitution did authorize such things, it would be worthy of being ignored, just as federal laws and Constitutional provisions protecting slavery were always worthless and should have been ignored by everyone everywhere.
Spicer then went on to make other fact-free claims in his attempt to connect marijuana use to recent surges in opioid deaths. Lizzy Acker in The Oregonian reports:
“I think that when you see something like the opioid addiction crisis blossoming in so many states around this country,” Spicer said, “the last thing that we should be doing is encouraging people.”
Though Spicer drew a connection between opioid use and marijuana, there is no known connection between the two. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2015 more than 33,000 people died from opioid overdoses, which includes both heroin and prescription painkillers, “more than any year on record.”
The CDC reported that “nearly half of all opioid overdose deaths involve a prescription opioid.”
Marijuana overdoses account for no deaths, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. In fact, a study reported in “Time” in 2016, said that “when states legalized medical marijuana, prescriptions dropped significantly for painkillers.”
As Mark Thornton shows, the problem of opioid deaths can be traced back to the mainstream medical profession’s frequent use of prescription painkillers, and has nothing at all to do with marijuana:
One class of prescription drugs is directly related to the heroin epidemic, on which I have recently reported. To recap, drug companies that make opiate pain killers have influenced the American Academy of Pain Medicine to change their guidelines for prescribing pain killers. The changes in the guidelines have made it much more likely for doctors to prescribe pain killing opiate drugs such as Oxycontin and Vicodin for things like ordinary injuries and surgeries. The DEA, FDA, and the AMA monitor prescribing behavior of doctors, so they are more likely to follow such guidelines to avoid risk of sanction.
These drugs are highly effective for pain, but can be addictive and deadly themselves (16,000 deaths in 2015 alone). When the injuries heal, addicted patients can no longer get refills for the drugs. For those who have become addicted their choices are going cold turkey, enter an addiction treatment program, or obtain the drugs on the black market. In other words, they have no good choices.
And, while Spicer suggests arresting some pot users might somehow miraculously do something to cut down opioid use, the FDA is approving opioid use for 11 to 16 year olds, thus encouraging greater use on children. If the Trump administration is in the mood to crack down on somebody connected to the opioid addiction problem, there’s no need to go out to Colorado or Oregon to do it. Trump can just drive over to the FDA headquarters in Maryland.
And finally, this is just the latest indication that the Trump administration’s priorities are not where they need to be. Earlier this month, David Stockman complained that Trump is letting himself get sidetracked from the important business of freeing up the economy. Stockman was apparently more right than he knew.
When asked about drug issues in far-off states that have legalized recreational marijuana, Spicer could have simply said “we’re concentrating on repealing Obamacare right now” or “we’re really focused on helping small business people make a living” or “we’re focused on finding peaceful solutions to pressing international issues right now, as in Syria.” All of those issues require immense focus, time and effort from Trump himself and his advisors. But no, the administration decided to declare war on seven US states instead.
There are only so many hours in the day. Trump might want to take a closer look at how he uses them.
About the author:
*Ryan McMaken is the editor of Mises Wire and The Austrian.
This article was published by the MISES Institute
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