In late February, DEA agents swarmed several head shops in Pittsburgh and the offices for online distributors of bongs in California. Over the course of two hours, the coordinated federal bust rounded up 55 people and seized thousands of dollars of drug paraphernalia. Included in the bust was none other than Tommy Chong, the spacey and laidback half of Cheech and Chong. For decades, selling bongs and pipes was an illegal transaction that federal agents treated with the same urgency as arresting a grocery store owner for selling a bottle opener to a minor. But Attorney General John Ashcroft is on a crusade enabled by law; one that he hopes will net not only bong dealers, but will also cinch tight all legal allowances for our nation's morals.
Get Out of My Room
Tommy Chong is, of course, most famous for his series of comically paranoid films from the early '70s, where he simultaneously lampooned dope-smoking culture and the bumbling attempts by the federal government to shut down the marijuana trade. In more recent years, Chong reprised his dopey hound-dog character as a photo shop owner in That '70s Show. He has also parlayed his widely known image into a marketing tool for selling bongs online.
In May, Chong plead guilty to the seemingly minor and notoriously overlooked crime of selling drug paraphernalia, and now awaits sentencing. He could spend the next five years in a federal penitentiary; all because he was doing something you and I think of as legal. What's most daunting is how this Operation Pipe Dream bust fits into the bigger picture: the federal government, with Ashcroft at its helm, has declared a no-holds-barred moral jihad. Whatever lip service the Republican Party has given to shrinking the federal government's influence has been undermined by Ashcroft's desire to quash the autonomy of local governments.
This agenda of strong-armed federal control first reared its head two years ago against Oregon's voters, when Ashcroft authorized federal agents to take legal action against doctors who prescribe lethal drugs for terminally ill patients--an authorization which broadsided Oregon's state-sanctioned Death with Dignity Act. Approved by voters in 1994 and finally enacted in 1997, the Death with Dignity Act allows a terminally ill patient, with the consent of two physicians, to take lethal drugs to end their life--an act that the staunchly conservative and Christian Ashcroft found morally reprehensible. In that fight, Ashcroft was rebuffed when a federal judge effectively told him to keep his hands off the state law.
That setback did not deter Ashcroft; instead, he changed his moral tact, focusing instead on marijuana. Like the assisted suicide law, attacking marijuana put Ashcroft immediately at odds with an individual state's rights to determine their own morals. Ten states, including Oregon and California, have partially decriminalized pot. The federal government however, seeks to overrule them.
Unlike his first unsuccessful volley into state's rights, Operation Pipe Dream has become Ashcroft's passion, and an opportunity for moral victory. We now approach a turning point when the federal government has taken the upper hand in the war over state's autonomy.
Much more is at stake than whether Oregonians will be allowed to legally smoke pot. The outcome from Ashcroft's latest mission could very well set the protocol for how much the federal government can control nearly every issue, from pot-smoking to abortion. And, so far, Ashcroft is winning.
VOTERS VS. THE FEDS
Last Thursday, the Drug Policy Committee from the Portland Sunnyside Neighborhood Association held its second meeting. In the dimly lit Cricket Café along SE Belmont, five neighborhood residents met to talk about drug use in the area. Over the next few months, they hope to complete a far-reaching survey about drug use and attitudes in the neighborhood. Although no one admits that the purpose of the survey is anything more than collecting information, it is clear that they believe their data will help leverage state lawmakers into loosening up marijuana laws. Of course, in light of recent events, and Ashcroft's move towards overarching federal control, their efforts may be in vain.
"Given all the other problems, like the economy, it seems absurd [for the government] to focus on pot," says the committee's chairperson, Floyd Landrath. Wearing a ribbed sweater and a graying beard, Landrath looks like an amiable and weathered fishing boat captain. He goes on to talk about the economic benefits legalizing and subsequently taxing marijuana could have.
"These federal prosecutors need to be prosecuting Enron and all those," he continues, arguing that attention be shifted away from marijuana. The other attendees nod in unison.
Over the past decade, the few inroads towards legalizing marijuana have been motivated by grassroots efforts like the Sunnyside Neighborhood's committee. Voter initiatives in Oregon and California have been responsible for medicinal marijuana allowances. Three years ago a more ambitious voter initiative to completely legalize pot in Oregon tried to qualify for the ballot, but that campaign imploded when one of the main petitioners was accused of embezzling contributions and forging signatures.
"[Decriminalizing marijuana] is not something that we're going to be able to do as one little committee attached to a neighborhood group," explains Landrath. "But maybe we can get the ball rolling."
Ultimately, federal laws that outlaw marijuana production and use trump any state law. But through the '90s, the federal government permitted a sort of benign co-existence. The end of that laissez-faire attitude was signaled earlier this month, when a California marijuana grower was arrested by the feds and found guilty for growing pot, despite the fact that he was following the rules under California's medicinal marijuana allowances. Federal prosecutors pushed for a hundred-year sentence and a $4.5 million fine. The federal judge countered by trying to dole out whatever leniency he could. He believed it was reasonable to conclude that the grower thought he was acting legally under California laws. The judge, Charles Breyer, skirted the minimum sentence that would have placed the grower behind bars for at least five years. Instead, Breyer sentenced the grower to one day in prison and a $1000 fine. Even so, the feds attempt to prosecute the grower to the full extent of the law indicates that they will no longer tolerate any efforts to get around federal drug laws. In short, the state is powerless.
THE RAVE ACT
President Richard Nixon was the first president who confronted pot smoking as a national pastime. As the counter-culture of tie-dyed and barefoot hippies became mainstream and suburban, joint smoking lost its nefarious reputation for "reefer madness." About that same time, movies by Cheech and Chong made pot smoking appear laughable, loveable, and largely harmless. Although Nixon called for an "all-out war" against marijuana, his condemnations did little to deter the mellowing reputation for pot.
By the time President Carter took office in 1977, the national attitude about reefer had relaxed considerably and, along with it, laws and enforcement were loosened. Willie Nelson claimed he smoked pot on the roof of the White House after he played at the inauguration of the former Georgia governor. By end of his presidency, even Carter publicly stated his belief that marijuana possession should be decriminalized. Arrests for pot smoking dipped to an all-time low.
But that détente from federal government was short-lived. The tide changed immediately when Carter left office and the morally rigid Ronald Reagan settled in. While most of the remaining developed nations in the world continued to lighten marijuana laws, and as individual states put in place laws to partially legalize pot, the Reagan administration tightened the screws. Reagan's first drug czar, Carlton Turner, linked pot smoking to anti-authority behavior and insisted that it could turn young men into homosexuals; apparently a crime of an even higher order.
Surprisingly, that trend continued through Bill Clinton's eight-year tenure. Clinton's health secretary called marijuana "dangerous and wrong." By the year 2000, roughly three-quarters of a million Americans were being arrested annually simply for possession; more than triple the number arrested annually during the Nixon administration. More people are in prison for marijuana crimes today than ever before; nationwide, there is an arrest for marijuana possession every 45 seconds. The United States' stalwart position by the federal government against marijuana is marked departure from the rest of the developed world, and even puts the White House at direct odds with ten U.S. states, each of which has decriminalized pot to some extent.
In the past several years, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Belgium all have legalized marijuana. Even Britain, the nation perhaps closest to America in political sensibility, plans to ratchet down penalties for possession this summer. The country's leading medical journal, The Lancet, has backed this trend. Three weeks ago, Canada's governing Liberal Party pushed for a law that would decriminalize possession of up to 15 grams. Yet, in response to Canada's plan, President Bush flexed his muscles, declaring that if our neighboring country made any attempt to lessen penalties for possession of marijuana, it would result in an all-out border war. He threatened that any import from Canada would become tied up in customs.
Clearly, a growing rift with the rest of the world--and even with its own states--is not a position that the White House is uncomfortable with. Bucking the global trend does not seem to deter Bush's White House from their agenda.
In fact, initial victories from Operation Pipe Dream have caused the federal government to expand the scope of its drug war. In March, Senator Joe Biden (R-Delaware) quietly attached the "RAVE bill" to a law enacting a national warning system about child abductions. RAVE stands for "Reducing Americans' Vulnerability to Ecstasy."
Under the new law, it is illegal to "manage or control any place... for the purpose of unlawfully manufacturing, storing, distributing, or using a controlled substance." That loose definition allows federal agents essentially unfettered discretion in busting up any party where there could be drugs--and not just ecstasy. For example, if your neighbor complains about a loud dinner party you host this weekend, and you and your buddies happen to be toking a joint, under the new law, you could be interpreted as hosting a "rave" and could face multiple years in federal prison. In an odd Footloose twist to this Draconian law, the probability that you have violated the RAVE Act increases dramatically if your dinner guests have rolled up the living room rug and are dancing.
In late May, the RAVE Act had its first test spin when a DEA agent in Billings, Montana reportedly used it to shut down a club where a benefit show for NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) was planned. Reportedly, the agent threatened the club owner with a quarter-million dollar fine if she hosted the concert, assuming the guests would be smoking pot. She immediately canceled. Officially, the new order had arrived.