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Domestic stealth bombs
From hounding medical-marijuana growers to stacking the courts with conservative judges, the Bush administration is pandering to the right while America prepares for war

A SECOND resolution on war in Iraq. A Bush post-invasion plan. Millions of antiwar protesters take to the streets. Saddam Hussein gets feisty with weapons inspectors. It’s no surprise that stories without an Iraq angle get little or no attention these days. The all-Iraq-all-the-time media myopia is even understandable, given how momentous an event it would be for President George W. Bush to send American troops off to battle.

Yet as we’ve learned often enough — especially with the Bush administration — what’s going on out of sight is often just as important as what’s taking center stage on TV or the front page. While we stockpile supplies and wrap our windows in duct tape, the Bushies are quietly advancing a frightening domestic agenda that amounts to a far-right ideological assault on our civil liberties and social protections — and threatens to turn the clock back decades. Here are five Bush-administration domestic policies of enormous consequence that have been overlooked in this time of impending war and national-security crises.

The assault on medical marijuana

This is a misguided, mean-spirited effort. But the Bush administration — led by Attorney General John Ashcroft — seems hell-bent on preventing states from permitting marijuana use for medical purposes. Ashcroft’s assault began in earnest in 2001, when he ordered a raid on a health-care facility in California that distributed medical pot — something a state ballot initiative legalized there in 1996. He’s continued to frustrate the will of California voters by pushing to revoke the licenses of doctors who recommend marijuana to patients. That strategy faltered when a federal court struck down Ashcroft’s legal motion to do so on constitutional grounds last fall.

Now, the attorney general has taken a different tack: arresting and prosecuting cannabis growers who work under the California medical-pot law known as Proposition 215. To date, Ashcroft’s Justice Department has gone after 40 such growers. Its latest victim? Ed Rosenthal. Author of cannabis self-help books and a High Times advice column called "Ask Ed," Rosenthal is something of a celebrity among potheads. But he’s also a legitimate Prop. 215 cultivator, a deputized "officer" who grows pot to be distributed for medicinal purposes under the auspices of the City of Oakland, where a local ordinance set up city-sanctioned growing facilities to implement the state law.

Despite Rosenthal’s official title, federal prosecutors arrested him on charges of marijuana cultivation and conspiracy last year; in January, they took him to court in San Francisco — though not many fair-minded folk would call what happened inside the courtroom a "trial." US District Court judge Charles Breyer refused to allow Rosenthal to raise Prop. 215 as a defense, since it’s not valid under federal law. So while he admitted growing marijuana for distribution, Rosenthal couldn’t offer up any witnesses to explain why. Given the constraints, the jury found Rosenthal guilty on January 31. Under mandatory sentencing, he faces a minimum of five years in prison.

It’s an extraordinary punishment for a man whom sick people regard as a savior and whom California law defines as a caregiver. But then, within days, jurors in his trial did something extraordinary, too. On February 4, eight of the 14 jurors offered a public apology to the man whom they’d just convicted. They were outraged to discover later that Rosenthal was growing medical cannabis for Oakland. If they had known he was acting as a city agent, they said, they would have acquitted him. The jurors, in other words, have a lot more compassion and sense on the matter than the Bush people do.

Americans are widely and increasingly tolerant of marijuana. Most don’t think casual pot use should be punished by more than a fine; 40 percent would even legalize the use of marijuana in small amounts, according to a recent Time/CNN poll. There’s almost no dispute, however, about whether patients with AIDS, cancer, and other debilitating illnesses should be allowed whatever relief marijuana can give them. Eight out of 10 Americans believe pot should be legal with a doctor’s prescription, the poll showed. Such popular support has led nine states, including California, to pass ballot initiatives making marijuana available to seriously sick people.

The Bush administration’s war on medical marijuana flies in the face of the president’s and Ashcroft’s oft-repeated rhetoric about the importance of states’ rights — apparently, a doctrine worthy of support only when it doesn’t contradict their moralistic, father-knows-best social agenda. As Kevin Zeese, who heads the Washington, DC–based group Common Sense for Drug Policy, puts it, "The administration is using the issue to energize its right-wing base." It’s no accident that, of the states that permit medical marijuana, Ashcroft has made an example only of California. Others, such as Hawaii, Colorado, and Maine, represent Republican swing states, whose support the president needs to win re-election in 2004. Zeese explains, "The strategy is to write off California to mobilize [the GOP’s] conservative, far-right base across the country."

This time, though, Ashcroft and his minions may have gone too far. The Rosenthal case has attracted more negative attention than they likely anticipated. If anything, the trial made Rosenthal into a martyr. His conviction has served as a rallying cry for supporters of medical marijuana everywhere. Offers Graham Boyd, who heads the American Civil Liberties Union Drug Policy Litigation Project, "For supporters, the issue is no longer a nice idea. It’s become one where the federal government is viewed as being out of control and vindictive, and we have to do something to stop it."

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Issue Date: February 27 - March 6, 2003
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