Arnold's Marijuana Fig Leaf

Debra J. Saunders

10/30/2007 10:16:32 AM - Debra J. Saunders

When The Associated Press released a story that reported Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said marijuana is "not a drug," press secretary Aaron McLear was quick to announce that Schwarzenegger was joking. During an interview with Piers Morgan, a judge of "America's Got Talent," the governator had said that he had never taken drugs, even though he has admitted to smoking marijuana and the 1977 documentary film, "Pumping Iron," showed him inhaling.

So Schwarzenegger quipped, "That is not a drug. It's a leaf. My drug was pumping iron, trust me."

McLear told me that just as Schwarzenegger is more playful when appearing on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," with some TV personalities, Schwarzenegger "says things that are a bit more shocking because he's playing to the audience." And: "The governor was not taking marijuana off the drug list. This was a light-hearted interview."

Too bad. I was hoping that Schwarzenegger was signaling a more sane drug policy for California -- one that would direct the state not to waste money on marijuana enforcement, so that police can concentrate on violent crime or drugs that, unlike marijuana, kill people.

"The thing about Gov. Schwarzenegger is, we all know that he smoked marijuana," noted Bruce Mirken of the Marijuana Policy Project. "He is one of a great many accomplished people who smoked marijuana and have gone on to lead a successful life."

Mayor Gavin Newsom is the rare politician to take on the war on drugs. As CBS's Hank Plante reported earlier this month, Newsom said, "If you want to get serious, if you want to reduce crime by 70 percent in this country overnight, end this war on drugs."

I called Police Officers Association President Gary Delagnes to discuss Newsom's remarks -- and figured Delagnes, who spent more than a decade on the drug beat -- would take me on when I told him I think marijuana should be legal.

Instead, Delagnes said, "So do I." Delagnes added that unlike methamphetamine and heroin, "You can't really die from marijuana; all it can do is fry your brain." (Be it noted: Frying your brain is not a good thing.)

"Ask any cop if they'd rather arrest somebody who is drunk or somebody who is stoned," Mirken had asked rhetorically. For Delagnes, the answer was easy. Tell a man who is stoned to put his hands against the wall, "he'll probably say that's cool."

But a drunk might just react violently.

Legalize all drugs? Newsom said he wasn't calling for that, but one certainly could infer that Newsom was toying with the idea. After all, some drug-war critics argue that if all drugs were legal, then drug crime would not pay.

Delagnes believes that more than 80 percent of San Francisco drug arrests are for serious drugs, such as heroin and crack cocaine -- drugs that destroy whole communities. In San Francisco, marijuana arrests are rare -- and almost always in response to a citizen complaint.

"I don't believe that users belong in prison. But I do believe that police departments and cities do have to address the qualify-of-life issues," Delagnes noted. Law-abiding folk "have every right to go home and not have to walk over two whacked out homeless people" on the way to the front door. And in his professional opinion, marijuana is not related to the city's homeless problem.

Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper is a board member of LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition). Former San Jose Police Chief Joe McNamara wrote a letter to the editor to The San Francisco Chronicle in support of Newsom's drug remark. McNamara called the drug war "a total failure." Yet even an iconoclastic politician like Arnold Schwarzenegger is positively timid when treading on drug-war turf.

Newsom criticized fellow Democrats for being afraid to call for drug-war reform, lest they seem weak on crime. He lamented "a failure of the imagination." More than that, there is a failure of political courage.