Congressman Tom Marino of Pennsylvania is the perfect choice for drug czar because President Donald Trump is assembling a team of old-school drug warriors at the White House whose favorite things include marijuana prohibition, civil asset forfeiture, and mandatory drug treatment for cannabis consumers.
Marino is no spring chicken to the septic tanks of politics. Sitting on the House Judiciary and Foreign Relations committees, he is one of the true political elites on the Hill who are privy to a long list of secrets that require billions in taxpayer money.
His sparse voting record on marijuana related bills? All negative, and that's no surprise.
This is the first time a member of Congress has been picked to lead the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Moving from such an entrenched legislative position to that of a mere presidential appointee does seem odd for Marino. But the jump makes sense given his long and amicable dealings with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, along with an existing relationship with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Christie and Pam Bondi of Florida have been tapped by Trump to deal with opiates. With Marino, Trump's front line against American marijuana consumers is now complete and ready to work with their pal Sessions.
To make it all feel extra gross, Marino takes money from pharmaceutical companies and lobbyists. That has no shock value, because almost all high-level politicians in N.J. and Pa. – especially the Congressional delegations – take some form of pharma campaign cash. Thanks to superPACs, we don't even really know how much. But again, that's just business as usual around here.
For a weed wonk like me, this is a bad scenario. Drug policy is one of the few areas where the executive branch wields tremendous, tangible power. The various federal departments and agencies that suck up oceans of tax funding on drug enforcement spend fully half of their time on cannabis. This trend is repeated in the states that maintain prohibition … like, say, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Erik Altieri, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), said Marino's new job was already "useless" anyway.
"The drug czar is required, by its own job description, to oppose any changes to current drug policy, including marijuana legalization," said Altieri. "This type of myopic thinking does nothing to advance sensible drug reform in this country and ensures modern science and social data is precluded from even being involved in the conversation."
NORML called for the "anti-science, outdated position [of drug czar] to be abolished entirely."
The administrations of presidents Bush, Clinton, and Obama all took a generally measured approach to evolving state-level cannabis policies and toward consumers themselves. Still, there were plenty of DEA raids on places like the Wo'mens Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM), a collective outdoor garden that was tended by terminally ill California patients.
Here's where the appointment of Tom Marino takes on poetic irony: The very first drug czar, the guy who literally invented marijuana prohibition – Harry Anslinger – was from Pennsylvania. Yes, the guy who brought us the film Reefer Madness.
Anslinger envisioned cannabis enforcement as a racist form of social control. With lasting effectiveness, he used what was once called "Yellow Journalism" and is now widely known as "fake news."
The basis for putting people into handcuffs, jails, courts, prisons, and drug treatment facilities over their choice to consume cannabis was never something from science.
Here are some of Anslinger's greatest hits in Hearst newspapers of the time:
Anslinger was from Altoona, where a town memorial to his anti-drug work resides, and he is buried in Hollidaysburg. He brought about the 1937 Marihuana Tax Stamp Act, served as de-facto drug czar for decades, and was given honors by President Kennedy at the White House shortly before he retired.
In 1969 the United States Supreme Court ruled the Marijuana Stamp – the basis for federal pot prohibition – an unconstitutional tax in Leary v. The State. Congress and President Richard Nixon immediately set about working on a long-term solution. The result was the 1970 Controlled Substances Act that cemented the race-based drug prohibition and remains in place today.
The fact that generations of American politicians have maintained and expanded the scope of Anslinger's misguided policy has turned into a tragedy for millions of consumers. It is a policy designed in the White House.
HBO's John Oliver recently showcased some of Nixon's most infamous marijuana quotes from a time when presidents recorded themselves. But here's another highlight:
Nixon's domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman made headlines around the world with this quote in a 2016 Harper's Magazine interview: "The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I'm saying? We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."
Ehrlichman confirmed everyone's worst fears about the roots of federal pot policy, but prohibition just keeps chugging along.
One person led a valiant effort to stop this train wreck – another Republican from Pennsylvania. Raymond Shafer, a two-term former governor, was appointed by Nixon in 1970 to oversee the two-year, blue-ribbon commission on classifying marijuana as Schedule I under the new Controlled Substances Act.
After extensive study, Shafer's team came to a unanimous decision summarized in its 1972 report Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding. They concluded that cannabis should be completely removed from the Controlled Substances Act, akin to alcohol, and that possession should be treated with a civil fine.
Shafer saw that prohibition enforcement would come down hard on minorities, mainly African-Americans and Hispanics. His commission also recognized that marijuana had been used as a legitimate medicine for hundreds of years. They went further in understanding that cannabis dependence didn't quite fit the definition of "addiction."
But, there was also a more fundamental issue. Shafer was a constitutional scholar who understood the deeper implications of criminalizing the individual choice to consume cannabis.
The Nixon administration purposefully suppressed the report and didn't enact the recommendations. Nixon then broke his promise to make Shafer a judge.
Drug prohibition has also been about ruthless politics and policies that are out of touch with reality. When Tom Marino moves from Congress to the White House he will move away from being a civil servant representing Pennsylvanians, to making marijuana prohibition his full-time job.
So, again, Marino is the perfect pick to succeed Harry Anslinger.