West takes on East in the drug war

Posted: Jul 29, 2002 12:00 AM
East does not meet West when it comes to America's drug war. California, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon and Washington have legalized medical marijuana. But that doesn't stop federal drug agents from raiding West Coast medical marijuana clubs. Skirmishes are erupting on new fronts. Nevada's November ballot will rachet up the fighting with an initiative to legalize possession of up to three ounces of marijuana -- with or without a prescription. Then last week, if only to add silliness to the equation, San Francisco Supervisor Mark Leno proposed a ballot measure to have The Special City grow medical marijuana. The timing couldn't have been worse for U.S. Drug Czar John Walters to visit the West, but that didn't stop him. On Thursday, Walters told The San Francisco Chronicle editorial board that he wasn't happy that some San Franciscans frame his position on medical marijuana as "bigoted" and without justification. Medical research, he said, simply doesn't support marijuana as medicine. Besides, many medical-marijuana advocates are more interested in using medicinal pot as a back door to legalize drugs -- they don't care about the afflicted. So who are these people to call Walters cold-hearted? And he's right. On the pro-medical marijuana side, there are some (sort of) healthy potheads who shamelessly hide behind sick people. And then there are Democrat anti-drug war partisans who charge that Republicans are hypocrites for saying that they advocate states' rights -- unless drugs are involved. (Of course, Dems don't notice that makes them hypocrites for boosting states' rights only for the drug war.) What about a truce -- an admission that both sides do care? Most medical-marijuana advocates care about cancer patients, who believe marijuana reduces their pain and calms their nausea. Walters cares about children, who are abused or neglected because their parents' wasted lives revolve around drugs, not family. Walters spoke expansively to establish his compassion bona fides, and it worked. He's engaging. He's thoughtful. He's not the cartoonish militarist detractors make him out to be. That said, Walters will never be All That He Can Be until he takes on the needless excesses in the war on drugs. I asked Walters about the draconian sentences that taint the federal criminal justice system. His answer was to go after "people who believe we should in some cases change laws, in some cases we should eliminate the laws on drug trafficking" who have created "a widespread misperception about what the criminal justice system is. I don't think we get good informed public opinion about this by having distorted views about what the system does." But while he believes the public is uninformed, Walters said he did not inform himself about the specifics of the high-profile case of Louisiana's Clarence Aaron, a first-time nonviolent drug offender who was sentenced to life for hooking up two drug operations. "I will confess to you that I don't know all the details," Walters said. Then he added, obfuscating: "I think that the damage that drug trafficking does to people is serious enough that I don't have a problem with that sentence. If I knew all specifics and I had to be the judge, I might have set something different." That answer is unacceptable. In February, Walters told me that his people were reviewing mandatory minimum sentences. He expected a report in four to six weeks. Now, months later, he's proposing no changes. Meanwhile, it's clear that he hasn't gotten to the bottom of one of the system's most notorious cases. And the Bush administration should indulge the states' views for a change. Forget about the states' rights hypocrisy issue. Washington should instead ask: Which approach works best? The answer is: People don't know, and different states have different problems. Good Republicans should understand that letting states experiment could provide needed answers. Voters in eight Western states, plus Maine, have told Washington they want to do things their way. Washington should listen.