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Medical Marijuana: should the sick be able to smoke?
The Donald and Paula Smith Family Foundation, New York, 18 January 2007

Alan Miller
posted 2 March 2007

This debate turned out to be not so much a full on clash of ideas, as a fairly mellow conversation between two people one may have assumed would have quite differing points of view. Bob Barr, one time CIA Official, former Congressman for Georgia and now '21st Century Liberties Chair for Freedom and Privacy' at the American Conservative Union sat down with Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which claims to be the nation's foremost opponent on the War on Drugs.

The debate was set to reflect on the fact that eleven states have legalised the medical use of marijuana and what this all meant in light of Gonzales v. Raich, where the Supreme Court majority sided against California and medical marijuana but said 'these respondents may one day be heard in the halls of Congress'. Barr made his case that the case for marijuana use was about the intrusion of Federal Government in to the rights of each separate state - and individual rights. He argued that the strength of the United States is that if a citizen does not like the policies of a particular state, after campaigning for change they could move on to another state if it was still in existence. This is what is so experimental about America, he suggested, and the recent deference of the Supreme Court to the federal government, in areas of privacy and the US Patriot Act were unacceptable.

Ethan Nadelmann kicked off by joking about how limited his disagreement with his counterpart was - 'perhaps a sixty degree difference of opinion'. He went on to say how shocking he believed the incumbent administration has been with its aggressive take on the issue, but continued 'so too have the Democrats'. He was torn in the issue of states' rights as it had been used as a mechanism to perpetuate racism in the 1950s, but believed that today the issue of federal imposition was far too egregious and needed to be stopped. With a high-speed delivery full of conviction and littered with humorous anecdotes, Nadelmann was clearly the better public orator. Even Nadelmann's elaboration of the various ways to ingest the weed in question did not make the debate any more polarised, however.

Nadelmann's key point was that in fact all marijuana use by adults should be legal, 'We should be allowed to ingest whatever we want in to ourselves… providing we do no harm to others'. Nadelmann's argument about the number of Americans incarcerated being disproportionately higher than any other country in the world has been made on the Huffington Post and most certainly tells us something about how drugs and crime are understood and dealt with in the US. Barr seemed to concur with this also, though stressed his larger concern was with how the government uses the War on Drugs rather like the very 'gateway' it presents drugs as - and then proceeds to make other laws which are attacks on citizens. Bob Barr kept quoting the First Amendment and The Bill Of Rights as the key way to understand drug legislation (and indeed Harper's did a fine piece on this in 1999).

When Nadelmann came out in 1988 against the 'Zero Tolerance' policies that both Republicans and Democrats agreed upon, with all pushing the 'Just Say No' message, it made him a largely marginal figure (Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke was the only other person declaring that the war on drugs had been a failure and that drugs should be decriminalised). That was still during the Cold War. How much the world has changed since then is astounding. Today, ideological underpinnings have melted somewhat and strange bedfellows have often emerged. It is in this context that we can understand Barr's migration from The Republican Party to the ACLU - despite the Libertarian Party having accused him in times gone by of being 'the worst Drug Warrior in the business'.

While the Republicans and Democrats continue to talk tough on drugs, the wider public debate is changing. Freed from the constraints of a more ideological era, today's debate is less about taking sides than articulating deeper feelings about individual liberty and autonomy, whether this is understood in a legalistic or more visceral sense. I must say that those who smoke too much weed tend to strike me as somewhat dull, but I do rather like the way the US Marijuana Party makes its case: 'We are Americans and we don't piss in a cup for anyone but our doctor'.


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