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CHARLES: The politics of Obama’s pot promo

Could drugs play a role in ‘fundamentally transforming’ the nation?

- - Friday, January 31, 2014

First, President Obama says marijuana is "not very different from cigarettes" and no more "dangerous" than alcohol, just "a waste of time" and "not very healthy." One imagines that he thinks of pot as somewhere between too many potato chips and fast driving. The president's not-so-subtle message is "go ahead, just use it."

Never mind that pot is a Schedule One narcotic, meaning a drug assessed as possessing "high potential for abuse," based on science. Never mind that this narcotic has landed hundreds of thousands in treatment during the past 10 years, accelerated emergency-room incidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and raised levels of drugged driving, domestic abuse and marijuana-associated crime, according to state and federal sources.

Days later, the Maryland mall shooter, who killed three, including himself, turns out to have been a marijuana user, according to police. Do you recall the deadly Columbine shooting and marijuana link? Or perhaps The New York Times article "Violent Crimes Undercut Marijuana's Mellow Image" in 2001? Or studies that have linked pot use to violence? Never mind.

Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. indicated he may waive money-laundering penalties for banks processing "marijuana money," and testified that while "all drugs are dangerous," he places alcohol with the Schedule One narcotics.

I usually am not cynical, but let's just be for a moment. Let's imagine the impossible. Suppose you wanted to increase national employment numbers by increasing legitimate business for emergency-room doctors and nurses, ambulance and tow companies, addiction-treatment centers and funeral homes, psychiatrists and behavioral psychologists, school counselors, law enforcement officers and social workers.

Suppose that you could do this while gaining political favor with millions of Americans either addicted to or abusing illegal drugs, in the process setting up a sequence of events that naturally produced several million new drug abusers and addicts (and voters) every year for the indefinite future, from whom you could regularly seek added political support.

Suppose, in addition, that you could satisfy a long-standing demand from several billionaires who have contributed handsomely to your political fortunes and to your party's races nationwide in recent years, and who are poised to do so again in future campaigns.

Now suppose that you could do all this and satisfy a major foreign country's long-standing appeal for change of U.S. policy, thus allowing America's third-largest trading partner to celebrate America's open-mindedness — and begin legally transshipping substantial quantities of addictive drugs into America's communities, schools, homes and workplaces.

By encouraging straight Americans to begin using the drugs, the new industry would grow. The drug would increasingly show up on U.S. highways, boosting business for hospitals, addiction centers and funeral homes.

Suppose all this could be done in the name of stimulating a new, homegrown business, a business that might permit former criminals to come out of hiding, allowing them to commit predatory crimes in the open, cheerfully targeting guileless children, teenagers and unsuspecting parents, as they raised the burden on health care and law enforcement personnel, and on local education and civic leaders.

Further imagine that you could push this new criminal legalization by fiat, encouraging your political allies to create a few state laws that upended federal law, and then waiving federal law in favor of these state laws — in effect subverting the Constitution's federal pre-emption clause by inverting it in favor of state pre-emption. When challenged, you could minimize the public danger in a casual interview.

You could then speak passionately of state sovereignty, and have your attorney general waive banking regulations to allow legalized money laundering for the first time. You could suspend prosecution of banks that processed illegal drug money.

You could then assert that nothing was changing, that you were ensuring the public was safer, that polls opposing you were inaccurate, and that prevention, treatment, law enforcement and educational experts were overreacting.

To chill further discussion, you could open some criminal-leaks investigations into press coverage that challenged you, and subtly threaten the public with added surveillance in the name of public safety. You could cow Congress by noting that enforcing criminal laws is very costly, and besides, you "have a pen" for executive orders.

As the legalization of crime accelerated, accelerating drug use and addiction, betraying tens of millions of heartbroken parents, teachers, emergency-room workers, insurers and health care professionals, you could take refuge behind the difficulty in measuring drugged driving (accidents and fatalities), commiserate with bereft and inconsolable parents, press Congress for more money and a single-payer federal health care system.

You could highlight international praise for your permissive foreign policy, and downplay the enormous public safety, health care and national security risks engendered in your approach. Then, having sowed the seeds of a crisis, you could explore the value of removing the two-term limit.

All this is far too cynical, though. No president would ever start America down such a destructive path, even for political, personal or transformational reasons. No president would ever put innocent American families through such an act of collective tragedy, public deception, political indifference or autocratic assertion (and concession) of federal powers. This is just an imaginary sequence — impossible from start to finish. Right?

Robert B. Charles is former assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement in the George W. Bush administration.