Round One of Obama’s “Open for Questions” Reveals Clamor for Drug Policy Reform

By Al Giordano

President-elect Obama – fulfilling multiple campaign promises to more deeply involve the public in setting priorities for his administration – opened up his Change.Gov website to questions from citizens, and asked the people to then rate the questions up or down.

The first round of questions closed at midnight last night, and it should come as no surprise that many of the top questions involve issues that millions of Americans care deeply about but for which commercial media coverage doesn’t do justice in reporting or prioritizing.

The number one question for the first round was:

“Will you consider legalizing marijuana so that the government can regulate it, tax it, put age limits on it, and create millions of new jobs and create a billion dollar industry right here in the U.S.?”

A total of 2,521 7,947 participants recommended that question to only 102 634 that thought it inappropriate (the latter figure is particularly revealing, demonstrating that the “conventional wisdom” that drug policy reform is too controversial to touch is simply not reflected in public opinion, certainly not among Obama’s base supporters).

I have a suggestion for one of the ways the President-elect – who having promised it, now owes a serious response to that question beyond the usual sloganeering and grandstanding by politicians regarding matters of drug policy – can answer it consistent with his own stated positions while also advancing on those parts of it that he has not spoken out about clearly. I’ll get to that in a moment.

But first, it is interesting to note that other drug policy reform questions finished quite high up the list, too.

The seventh most popular question – out of many thousands submitted – was:

“13 states have compassionate use programs for medial Marijuana, yet the federal gov’t continues to prosecute sick and dying people. Isn’t it time for the federal gov’t to step out of the way and let doctors and families decide what is appropriate?”

The thirteenth:

“How will you fix the current war on drugs in America? and will there be any chance of decriminalizing marijuana?”

The fifteeth most popular question was:

“What kind of progress can be expected on the decriminalization and legalization for medicinal purposes of marijuana and will you re-prioritize the “War On Drugs” to reflect the need for drug treatment instead of incarceration?”

The eighteenth most popular question:

“The U.S. has the world’s highest incarceration rate, largely due to the War on Drugs. Our prisons are festering pits of rape, racism, and gang violence, and divert a lot of tax money to the corrupt prison industry. How can we fix this?”

And the ninteenth, on another area of drug policy:

“What will be done about the FDA and its cozy relationship with the Pharmaceutical industry? Will the protective legislation for the Pharm be reversed? Will the FDA pre-emption policy protecting the Pharm from liability be addressed?”

In other words, six of the top twenty questions – that’s 30 percent of them – are on drug policy and matters related to it.

If the President-elect and his advisors were to ask “how should we respond to those questions” I would answer in two parts:

1. Reiterate those campaign promises (to stop federal medical marijuana raids in states that have decided to allow patients access to that medicine, to end mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent offenders, and adequately fund drug treatment among them, prioritizing the latter over incarceration), implementing those that only require an executive order immediately upon taking office on January 20.

2. Appoint a National Commission of highly qualified and respected scientists, medical investigators, doctors, patients, civil libertarians and civil rights advocates, law enforcement professionals and experts, defense attorneys, prosecutors, economists, prison reform advocates, and some retired gray eminences from those fields to report back within sixth months with detailed answers to all of those questions and more. Charge the National Commission with making detailed recommendations for reforming US drug policy in ways that cease its counter-productive impacts on public safety, federal and state budgets, civil rights and liberties.

And then, when the report comes back, act upon it: implement changes that can be made through executive order immediately (including resetting priorities for US Attorneys and law enforcement agencies across the country) and propose legislation to Congress to deal with the rest.

And mobilize the grassroots supporters – Micah Sifry at TechPresident has published an Obama organization memo confirming that the field organization will be utilized for lobbying the House and Senate – to pressure Congress to comply.

The President-elect asked for public input and, lo’ and behold, he got it.

Now the ball is in his court to act on it in a meaningful way, a very important early test for whether he’ll walk his talk.


Daily Green – Phthalates, a class of hormone-mimicking chemicals found in toys, cosmetics, air fresheners, plastics and other common household products, need urgent study, according to the National Research Council. Americans are exposed to phthalates and other potential endocrine disrupting chemicals, and the Environmental Protection Agency needs to study the cumulative effect of this exposure in determining the health risk, according to a report by the National Research Council, the premier U.S. scientific organization.

Because many chemicals share the ability to mimic hormones at low levels, the EPA needs to consider how various chemicals interact and affect the body. Now, the EPA typically reviews the health risk of chemicals based on the chemical structure of each compound, rather than common health impacts of multiple chemicals.

Several phthalates are to be banned in U.S. children’s products in 2009 (though products for sale this Christmas are not subject to the ban), and Europe has gone farther by banning several phthalates used in cosmetics. For the first time, cosmetics makers will report their use of phthalates to the EPA, but it’s still virtually impossible for consumers to determine which products contain phthalates from reading ingredient labels.

Here’s how the NRC framed the need for a cumulative health assessment:

“The committee reviewed animal research and found that exposure to various phthalates in lab animals produced health outcomes, including a range of effects on the development of the male reproductive system. The most notable effects in male rats are infertility, undescended testes, malformation of the penis, and other reproductive tract malformations. However, the severity of effects differs among phthalates; some exhibit less severe or no effects. Furthermore, the age of the animals at the time of exposure is critical to the severity of the effects. For example, the fetus is most sensitive. Given that multiple human exposures to phthalates occur and that research shows exposure to different phthalates leads to similar outcomes in lab animals, a cumulative risk assessment is called for, the committee said.

“The animal studies reviewed by the committee also indicated that some phthalates reduce testosterone concentrations. Depending on when this drop occurs, it can cause a variety of effects in animals that are critical for male reproductive development. Other chemicals known as antiandrogens, which prevent or inhibit male hormones from working, can produce similar effects in lab animals. The committee recommended that phthalates and other chemicals that affect male reproductive development in animals, including antiandrogens, be considered in the cumulative risk assessment. A focus solely on phthalates to the exclusion of other chemicals would be artificial and could seriously underestimate risk, the committee emphasized.”