There was good news Monday for potheads, and even a little good news for states' rights, which once upon a time were thought to be important.
Barack Obama's Justice Department said it would encourage U.S. attorneys to look the other way when they see hollow-eyed potheads emerging from the legal pot shops dispensing the noxious weed to "medical smokers."
In theory the decision won't necessarily increase the use of pot, either for medicinal or recreational purpose, and the president might be throwing a toke to his followers on the left already high on wingnut politics. He might even pass this off as part of his health care reform, a Senate version of which arrived Monday at 1,502 pages. This could be reckoned as pot in lieu of public option.
Fourteen states now allow use of marijuana for "medical purposes." Medical marijuana was first sold in California in 1996, after voters adopted Proposition 215 enabling the dispensing of pot with a valid prescription from a legitimate doctor. The new Justice Department "initiative" will affect California most, where smoking pot is widespread. In fact, now that Los Angeles has no representation in the National Football League smoking pot is something of the state sport. More than 800 state-sanctioned dispensaries sell marijuana to "medical patients," most of whom walk in and out of the dispensary and but for hollow eyes and shambling gait appear to be healthy enough. There's no reliable estimate of the number of Californians who smoke pot for medical reasons, but with 800 dispensaries every one of them should have his own dedicated dispensary.
The Justice Department officials who described the new policy to the Associated Press say it makes clear that prosecutors will continue to prosecute legal distributors who use the loosened policy to subvert state laws against drugs. This bow - or maybe a shrug and a wink - to states' rights reverses the policy of the Bush administration to enforce federal law against pot regardless of what state law-enforcement officials do. Attorney General Eric Holder said in March that he would enforce both state and federal law against pot distribution, so this may be another case of Mr. Obama being for something that he used to be against, or vice versa, depending on whether vice or versa is more popular.
The new policy gives wide discretion to prosecutors, who will make their own decisions whether to wink at vice or salute versa. Doctors, too. Many doctors in California have been suspected of winking so often their eyes have frozen in the shut position. The late Tod H. Mikuriya, a San Francisco psychiatrist (naturally), wrote the book on the medical uses of pot, and organized the Society of Cannabis Clinicians to further its use against certain diseases and medical conditions. He identified 285 such ailments, including cancer, insomnia, stuttering, recovering forgotten memories and writer's cramp.
Mikuriya, who once observed that his ethnic background - his father was a Japanese Christian, his mother a German follower of the Baha'i faith and he was educated in Quaker schools - gave him a unique perspective on the uses of pot. Barry McCaffrey, the White House drug czar in the Clinton administration, nevertheless described Mikuriya's practice of marijuana medicine as "a Cheech and Chong show."
Mikuriya was accused in the year 2000 of unprofessional conduct and incompetence in recommending pot to patients, failure to conduct proper physical exams of patients and failure to keep adequate records. He was eventually put on probation by the state of California in 2004 and continued to practice under supervision of a state monitor while he appealed the decision. He stopped seeing patients in his home and moved to a small office above a Trader Joe's supermarket at the eastern edge of San Francisco Bay.
He even wrote a song about President Clinton and Congress, and how in his view they stiffed the potheads: "Our pudgy White House waffler/Who never did inhale/The deaf and blinded Congress/Wants to put us all in jail ..."
The song never made the charts, with or without a bullet, and the doctor died two years ago and, despite the mystical and sensory gifts of cannibas sativa, is unlikely to be writing any more songs. Every messiah expects a hymn to himself, but Barack Obama, despite his little toke(n) to the pothead culture, might have to wait for a little doggerel.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.