The Time Grassley Compared Pot Smoking to Genocide, Rape, and Child Abuse

"Illegal drug use costs society at least as much as any of these social ills," the senator once wrote in a letter to constituents asking for federal drug reform

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A week ago today, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo overturning a 2013 Obama administration decision to no longer take federal drug enforcement action against states that chose to legalize marijuana. The move by Sessions — a longtime drug warrior who once joked that he thought the Ku Klux Klan was okay until he learned that its members smoked pot — did not come as a surprise.

On Monday, libertarian Cedar Rapids Gazette columnist Adam Sullivan wrote about Sessions’ announced crackdown on legal weed, but he pointed to another senator he argued has drawn an even harder line than the AG on his “outdated attitude toward drugs”: Chuck Grassley, who currently chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“However, it is Iowa’s own U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, not his longtime Capitol Hill colleague Sessions, who has been the federal government’s leading advocate for cracking down on states’ legal marijuana programs,” Sullivan wrote. “Sessions is harvesting the flowers of Grassley’s yearslong crusade against legal weed.” As evidence, he mentioned several instances when Grassley went after President Obama’s Justice Department for easing up on federal drug enforcement efforts against pot — “just one more area,” the senator once said, “in which the Obama administration is undermining our system of checks and balances and the rule of law.”

Related: Read Scumbag Grassley, a new comic strip at the Iowa Informer
Related: Read Scumbag Grassley, a new comic strip at the Iowa Informer

Even before the Obama era, Grassley was staunchly anti-grass. In 2007, probably just curious if I’d get a response, I sent the senator a pre-written letter from a National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws campaign asking supporters of drug reform to contact their elected officials in support of an amendment to prevent the feds from going after medical marijuana patients in states that had legalized their use of it for various ailments.

The following year, I was reminded of the form letter I’d received from Grassley after his then-colleague, the progressive Democrat Tom Harkin, made news for defending pot prohibition with an appeal on behalf of “the small child whose parents are so addicted to illegal drugs that they sell everything including perhaps their own children to obtain a fix.”

In the letter, Grassley took things several steps further than Harkin, likening what he referred to as the “social ill” of illegal drug use to crimes as ghoulish as child abuse, rape, and genocide — crimes, he pointed out, that the public has not called on lawmakers to legalize.

“After several thousand years, civilized societies have failed to eliminate murder, rape, or child abuse,” Grassley wrote. “Nor have they eliminated organized crime, the manufacture of counterfeit money, or genocide. But no one seriously sees these failures as justification for surrender. Illegal drug use costs society at least as much as any of these social ills. Yet we do not hear any calls to legalize these abuses.” (Read his letter in full at the end of this post.)

For now, it remains to be seen how much of an impact Sessions’ reversal of the Obama-era federal enforcement guidelines will have on the 29 states, plus Washington DC, that have legalized pot for medical or recreational use.

But the Gazette‘s Sullivan, along with numerous other commentators across the country, believe that Sessions is ultimately fighting for a lost cause. “The unfortunate reality for drug warriors is the federal government has no way to enforce prohibition,” Sullivan wrote. “The government’s own figures prove it — in 2013, before recreational sales started, an estimated 20 million Americans had used marijuana in the past month.” He then ended his column on a confident note: “So rest assured, Sessions and Trump are not coming for your weed. They may be delaying the inevitable, but marijuana still is winning America’s war on drugs.”

Here’s the full text of the letter Grassley sent me in October 2007:

Thank you for taking the time to contact me with your thoughts on marijuana. I always enjoy hearing from people back home.

I must, however, disagree with your views on this topic. You see, marijuana is illegal because it is dangerous. When you smoke marijuana, or use any other drug, it changes your brain. It changes the way you think, your ability to learn, and how well you can remember. Making marijuana a legal drug will not change any of this.

Some drug users believe that their drug use only affects themselves and that they pose no threat to society. This belief is misguided. People who use drugs do so to alter their perceptions of reality. When someone is high, they cannot be as alert to dangers that are always around us, dangers such as a boiling pot on the stove, a burning candle, or even something as simple as an open window. We know that drug-using workers are 3 to 4 times as likely to have on-the-job accidents, 4 to 6 time more likely to have off-the-job accidents, 2 to 3 times more likely to file medical claims, 5 times more likely to file workman’s compensation, and 25 percent to 35 percent less productive on the job. To claim that drug use affects only the user is to deny the reality that whatever we do effects those around us.

Society retains a right, and in many cases an obligation, to sustain programs that reduce–but may not be able to eliminate–the problems they are designed to resolve. Despite our wishes to the contrary, we do not live in a perfect world. This is true with respect to pollution, violent crime, child abuse, and countless other areas where there is no true hope of ultimate success in ending the abuse. In the case of drug control, absolute success isn’t necessary to justify prohibition, nor is an unpleasant side-effect necessarily sufficient cause to end it. We do not demand 100 percent success as a justification for other abuses that society attempts to place upon its fellow members. We only ask that we strive towards perfection, that we reach for ideals.

After several thousand years, civilized societies have failed to eliminate murder, rape, or child abuse. Nor have they eliminated organized crime, the manufacture of counterfeit money, or genocide. But no one seriously sees these failures as justification for surrender. Illegal drug use costs society at least as much as any of these social ills. Yet we do not hear any calls to legalize these abuses. Why then should we give up? Should we surrender to the criminals, and legalize marijuana? No. Instead, we should do whatever we can to prevent criminals from gaining the upper hand, do what needs to be done to give our families, our friends, and our neighbors a safe and secure place to live.

I want to thank you again for contacting me. I have very strong feelings about the importance of maintaining a representative government. For democracy to function, there has to be two-way communication between Americans and their elected representatives. By sharing your views with me, Iowans play a vital role in this process. Hearing from you enables me to be a better U.S. Senator, and I very much appreciate the time you took to contact me. Thanks again for keeping in touch.

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Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.