Will Trump’s ONDCP Resurrect John “Marijuana Unicorns” Walters’ Ideas?

John Walters Unicorns

With the election of Donald Trump and his selection of hard-line drug warriors Sen. Jeff Sessions as Attorney General (which controls DEA and ONDCP) and Rep. Tom Price to head Health & Human Services (which controls FDA and NIDA), longtime reform activists like myself have warned that the recent hands-off approach by the federal government over the emerging legalization of marijuana in the states is probably coming to an end.

Now, a report from the newsletter, Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Weekly* (ADAW), shows that the folks at Big Rehab are salivating over what they believe is the likelihood of resurrecting the George W. Bush-era anti-marijuana policies of former Drug Czar John Walters.

The drug strategy of the Trump administration is going to look a lot like that under John Walters, head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) under President George W. Bush, ADAW has learned. The three key issues are prevention, treatment and border control.

President Trump has not yet named a new Drug Czar. In the role today as the Acting Director is Lt. Col. Kemp Chester (ret.), who served our country over a quarter-century in the Air Force in the Gulf War, the Iraq War, and the Afghanistan War, and most recently as the Deputy Director for Intelligence and Chief of Counternarcotics for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Whether the Trump Administration will elevate Lt. Col. Chester to permanent Drug Czar isn’t yet known, but keeping someone with a military background in charge of the Drug War would follow the precedent of President Clinton’s Drug Czar, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who once said of cannabis, “This isn’t medicine; this is a Cheech & Chong show.

What John Walters Thought About Marijuana

In case you’ve forgotten what federal antipathy to marijuana reform is like, here is Drug Czar John Walters in 2007 on C-Span, responding to a question by then-MPP staffer Aaron Houston about then-Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s use of marijuana in Alaska and whether that should disqualify her. Mr. Walters dodged that question and instead attacked what he considered the light-hearted attitude toward marijuana abuse that betrays our youth.

The fact is today, people don’t go to jail for possession of marijuana. I know you like to pretend it does [sic] and there’s a lot of misinformation about that. But finding somebody in jail or prison for a first-time non-violent possession of marijuana is like finding a unicorn. You find one, you’ll make a big story, because it doesn’t exist.

Mr. Walters was fond of the “Marijuana Unicorns” talking point, one that lives on today in the rhetoric of the “quarterback of the anti-legalization movement“, Kevin Sabet, and his Big Rehab-think tank, Project SAM.

This is one of those lines that is technically true but intentionally obfuscatory. Indeed, most first-time, non-violent marijuana possession cases end up with some sort of probation and rarely get sentences for county jail or state or federal prison time.

The key word there is sentences. Everybody living in a non-decriminalized state who is arrested for marijuana spends some time in jail, even if that’s just the handcuffed ride in the back of the cop car to the holding cell you sit in for hours during booking while you try to make bail. If you can’t make bail, then you sit in that jail cell until your arraignment and trial.

Whether you make bail and that jail time is a few hours or you don’t and the time is a few weeks, it can have a devastating impact on your life, from as little as a missed appointment to as large as losing your job and home, as well as the lifelong impact, especially in the age of Google, of having your name in the news as someone arrested for drugs.

Marijuana’s a Gateway to Drugs, Crime, Self-Destruction

The fact of the matter today is for many people their lives get out of control with marijuana use. Their lives get out of control and it spreads to other kinds of self-destructive behaviors, including drug use as well as crime.

A Drug Czar who believes wholeheartedly in the long-debunked “gateway theory” (see pg 6) of marijuana use leading to hard drugs – that’s the kind of drug policy thinking the Big Rehab folks are hoping for from the Trump Administration’s ONDCP. A policy where marijuana users are just people with pre-hard-drug-addiction who need some benevolent rehab for their own good – coerced by the threat of failed urine screenings sending them back to jail, of course.

“Michael Botticelli, the beloved ONDCP director who had championed recovery and, along with Gil Kerlikowske, President Obama’s first drug czar, a focus on treatment and away from the drug war, was also gone,” ADAW writes clumsily in reference to the disappearance of the ONDCP’s website under the Trump Administration’s transition. “But the programs are still there.”

Teens Will Heed Marijuana Advice From Talking Dogs

And the fact of the matter today is when we correct that misunderstanding, as we have with young people and with parents, we see rates of use go down, because they didn’t know.

The self-reported monthly use of marijuana by 8th graders and 10th graders is lower now than it was when Mr. Walters said that back in 2007. Use among 12th graders is higher than in 2007, but relatively unchanged since Washington and Colorado state legalization began in 2012.

The “correct that misunderstanding” Mr. Walters refers to is the ONDCP’s youth anti-marijuana ad campaign he championed. Back in 2002, Walters said that the nearly $1 billion “The Anti-Drug” ad campaign was a failure because the ads were “too indirect” and “may have even encouraged some youngsters to try marijuana.”

So, Mr. Walters then lobbied Congress to keep spending $180 million a year to produce a new ad campaign called “Above the Influence”, which he said would be focused more on older teenagers. ”We intend to be more rigorous in our testing” of the effectiveness of the ads before releasing them, he noted.

Gee, how could this talking dog fail to stop teens from smoking pot?

By 2006, the Government Accountability Office noted that Mr. Walters’ anti-drug advertising campaign was a failure, a finding Mr. Walters’ office called “irrelevant to us” and claimed against evidence that the ads “were effective”.

Teens and Marijuana 2010s
Fewer young kids smoke pot since John Walters talked about “Marijuana Unicorns”, despite legalizing marijuana in eight states and their plummeting fear of and disapproval of marijuana use.

And, frankly, the Baby Boomer generation is the start of ‘didn’t know’. Marijuana was part of coming of age. We still have that echo of that Baby Boomer generation in our culture. We’re changing that and young people are showing us the way. And you’re going to be, if I can mix my metaphors, a dinosaur in another five years.

Incidentally, five years from when Mr. Walters said that is when Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana.

Walters’ “Alternative Facts” on Marijuana Arrests

Another drug law reformer at the event asked Mr. Walters a follow-up question about the money that had been wasted on anti-drug advertising, wondering how much better off we might have been if that nearly $1 billion of taxpayer money had been put to other ends. Mr. Walters steered the conversation back to what he thinks is the myth of marijuana arrests.

We didn’t arrest 800,000 marijuana users; that’s the same lie I just talked to your colleague about. We arrest people because they’re usually involved with violent offenses and they’re involved in things like driving while intoxicated… we have a booklet if you want to see it because this idiocy is repeated so often….

I was arrested for marijuana possession in the state of Utah in 2014. I was riding in a car with a driver who was not intoxicated and had no criminal record. Neither myself nor my former assistant arrested with me had any sort of criminal record of violence; my only prior legal issues had been a couple of disturbing the peace charges for loud parties in my twenties and a reckless driving conviction from my teens.

For that charge involving the mere residue of cannabis oil in a vapor pen, I spent six hours in the county jail, had to scramble to get $5,000 in loans from friends to bail the two of us out, hire a lawyer at the cost of $750, and pay $1,200 in court costs and fines, while avoiding any other sort of law enforcement encounter for a year, lest the court reinstate my charges and put out a warrant for my arrest to serve up to six months in Utah prison.

Arrests by Admin 2015
We’re only repeating the idiocy that the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report tells us year after year.

We think too many people are in jail. I think too many people are in jail. But the problem is the people that are in jail are there because we have too much crime, because we have too many people victimizing other people. Principally, most, ninety, eighty, ninety percent of those are in the largest cohort of state prisons are there for violent and repeat offenses.

Crime Rates 1970-2015
“Alternative Facts” is not a phenomenon unique to the current Republican administration.

Never mind the fact that the crimes of “people victimizing other people” have fallen throughout the 21st century. This is another bit of statistical prestidigitation that misrepresents how people are catalogued for their stay in jail or prison.

Yes, if we look up all the people sitting in prison with a marijuana conviction, there is often a conviction for a real crime along with it. This is how Mr. Walters and others make the point that people in jail for marijuana are actually real criminals who pleaded down from serious crimes. The implication is that if you’re just caught smoking a joint, you just get a slap on the wrist.

But there are plenty of people considered “real criminals” in the statistics who, for all intents and purposes, are simply caught smoking a joint or going through the steps necessary to do so, like buying a personal amount of marijuana or growing a few cannabis plants for personal use, who get catalogued for something other than “simple possession”. Like people who are on probation who fail a urine screening; they’re catalogued under their original conviction, not smoking the joint that caused the test failure. Or parents whose smoking or growing gets them a child endangerment charge. Or people who own a lawful firearm who get charged with use of a gun in the commission of a crime. Or drivers who were unimpaired who get drugged driving charges based on zero tolerance for inactive marijuana metabolites. Or people who aren’t actually busted with marijuana at all but get convicted on “ghost weed” conspiracies.

I Got Your Marijuana Unicorns Right Here, Bub

Again, if you find the unicorn, you find the 15-year-old with the baggie of marijuana in the pocket for the first time on his way to choir practice that’s in jail, I’ll buy a you a steak dinner. Show me that unicorn.

When Mr. Walters made this request, I held a contest on my podcast called “Find the Marijuana Unicorns”. The contest was to find the person who had done the most time in jail for the least amount of weed. While I heard from people who had done some time for fractions of a gram and even mere specks of marijuana, the runner-up and winner of my contest were Tim Zindars and Catherine Thompson, respectively.

Mr. Zindars was caught with a marijuana pipe with no marijuana in it in his pocket in Wisconsin. He had to serve fifteen days of a thirty-day jail sentence, followed by a six-week mental health evaluation.

Ms. Thompson was caught in Idaho at her boyfriend’s house doing homework when the police came over on a noise complaint. As the police are speaking to her, they notice an empty, never-used, brand-new bong on a shelf in the corner. The bong owner got a paraphernalia charge, while Ms. Thompson and the others at the residence got a charge of frequenting a place of known drug activity, despite absolutely no drugs being found in the home. Ms. Thompson got a sentence of 20 days in jail, served over the Christmas and New Years’ holidays, followed by two years of probation.

Got that? A young woman has a criminal record because she was doing homework in a place that displayed a piece of glass shaped a certain way. She went to jail for ZERO marijuana because she was near a tool that could be, but never was, used for smoking it.

Unicorn in the moonlight
The real unicorn is a White House Drug Czar who tells the truth about cannabis.

The Trump Administration returning back to the Drug War rhetoric of a decade ago should give every activist the motivation to redouble our efforts at realistic, legitimate education of the public about marijuana. Let’s hope that with 60 percent public support for legalization now instead of the 36 percent support then we can beat back the days of ignorance and cruelty that ADAW, Kevin Sabet, and Big Rehab want to relive.


* The power of framing. It’s “Alcoholism” and “Drug Abuse”, as if the two conditions were somehow different, as if alcohol is not a drug.

Russ Belville
About Russ Belville 199 Articles
Russ Belville - or "Radical" Russ, as he is known on-air - hosts The Marijuana Agenda, a live news and talk radio program for the cannabis community, weekdays at 3pm Pacific on MJAgenda.com.  The show is based in Portland, Oregon, but "Radical" Russ has traveled over 300,000 air miles in the past five years, bringing his show to report live from hundreds of cannabis conferences, marijuana expos, hemp festivals, and legalization events in over 70 North American cities.