The Executive can change a drug's "schedule," affecting its level of regulation (photo: wikimedia)

If an individual was elected president and was determined to radically scale back the federal drug war, she or he could. This is not some crazy theory; it is a simple fact based on the actual design of our drug laws. Dramatically curtailing the federal drug war can be done as an action of the executive branch without needing the approval of Congress.

You can read the relevant provisions of the law here. What this means is that written into our drug laws is a mechanism for the executive branch without Congressional involvement to move drugs to a lower “schedule” of oversight or remove them from federal control all together. It is not uncommon or unusual for the relevant executive agencies to use this power to change the scheduling of different controlled substances.

A determined president (example: Ron Paul) could instruct the relevant executive agencies to take the step necessary to remove any drug (example: marijuana) from federal scheduling or reduce it to the lowest schedule, making it legal to purchase the drug over the counter without a prescription. Such a move would make a drug legal under federal law.

Ending the federal drug war, or at least radically scaling back the drug war, is one of those issues where the president has very broad legal authority to take significant unilateral action.

Yet for some bizarre reason simply assuming the president doesn’t have this clearly outlined power has become a common “justification” for liberal writers to attack the idea of supporting Ron Paul. I consider the continued existence of this particular type of falsehood to be a serious problem for democracy. Examples include this completely inaccurate assertion about federal drug law from Matthew Yglesias in August:

The fact is, however, that most anti-drug laws and most drug law enforcement happens on the state level, and President Paul won’t be able to repeal federal drug legislation without backing from Congress, which won’t happen. Like any president, President Paul will need to work with members of Congress and will need to set priorities.
And there’s this argument from Ta-Nehisi Coates about Paul which suggests he is unaware of the power of the presidency in regard to drug laws.
It is not enough to simply proffer Paul as a protest candidate.One must fully imagine the import of a Paul presidency. How, precisely, would Paul end the drug war? What, exactly, would he do about the Middle East? How, specifically,would the world look for women under a Ron Paul presidency?

[....]

I would like nothing more than to join my friends in support of Paul and exhilarate in a morality unweighted by the ugly facts of governance and democracy. But the drug war is not magic. It is legislation passed by actual politicians, themselves elected by actual by Americans. Unbinding that war demands the same.

Yes the federal drug laws were put in place by politicians. That is actually why some are advocating the American people elect a politician, Ron Paul, to the office of president where he would have needed power to unbind them.

There are many valid reasons to not support Ron Paul based on a whole range of issues, but I have had enough of this unexamined and completely false idea that a President Paul would be powerless to change drug policy without Congress. Voters need to know what legal powers a president has; they need to know that key parts of the war against drugs remain only because the current president has actively chosen not to use those legal powers.

It is absolutely critical to a functioning democracy that the electorate know what a politician can and can’t legally do with a particular office. Without proper knowledge of which officeholders actually deserve credit or blame for policies, democratic elections become little more than a farcical popularity contest.