Obama on Weed

“The war on drugs has been an utter failure. (W)e need to rethink and decriminalize our (nation’s) marijuana laws.”

-Barack Obama, January 2004 (Watch the video here.)

“I inhaled frequently, that was the point.”

-Barack Obama, November 2006 (Watch the video here.)

Q: “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: “President-elect Obama is not in favor of the legalization of marijuana.”

-Statement from Change.gov, the official website of President-Elect Obama, December 15, 2008

Okay, count me among those disappointed, but hardly surprised to see that Change.gov — the official website of the incoming Obama administration — answered the above question, which finished first out of over 7,000 public policy questions submitted to the website, in the most curt and dismissive way possible.

That said, as StoptheDrugWar.org’s Scott Morgan writes, Obama’s brevity is, in fact, quite telling.

As frustrating and insulting as it is to witness an important matter brushed casually to the side without explanation, Obama’s answer actually says a lot. It says that he couldn’t think of even one sentence to explain his position. Within the vast framework of totally paranoid anti-pot propaganda, Obama couldn’t find a single argument he wanted to associate himself with. That’s why he simply said “No. Next question.”

All of this highlights the well-known fact that Obama agrees that our marijuana laws are deeply flawed. He’s said so, and has back-pedaled recently for purely political reasons. If Obama’s transition team tried to give an accurate description of his position on marijuana reform it would look like this:

Q: “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.?” S. Man, Denton

A: President-elect Obama will not use his political capital to advance the legalization of marijuana. While he agrees that arresting adults for marijuana possession is a poor use of law enforcement resources, he believes that the issue remains too controversial to do anything about it.

In fact, Obama essentially said as much earlier this year when asked about the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes.




Obama: “When it comes to medical marijuana, my attitude is if it is an issue of doctors prescribing marijuana, I think that should be appropriate. Whether I want to use a whole lot of political capital on (this) issue; the likelihood of that being real high on my priority list is not likely.” (Watch the video here.)

So then, disappointed as we are, how should we proceed?

Answer: Just as we have been.

To be fair to President-Elect Obama, he never pledged to legalize marijuana. Quite the contrary, during his Presidential campaign he backtracked from his previous comments supporting pot decriminalization, and he even went so far as to pick one of the chief architects of the modern drug war to be his Vice President. In short, to believe that the Obama team would have responded to the legalization question any other way was idealistic at best, and foolish at worst.

But that hardly means that we activists should write off the next four years.

In November, editors at the website Alternet.org asked me to draft “a progressive agenda for Obama” regarding marijuana policy. At that time, I listed several realistic, practical actions Obama could take to substantially reform America’s antiquated and punitive pot laws. (Note, legalizing marijuana by Executive Order was not on my wish list.)

These actions include:

1. As President, Obama must uphold his campaign promise to “not use Justice Department resources to try and circumvent state laws” that legalize the medical use of cannabis. (Watch the video here.)

2. Obama can appoint leaders to the US Department of Justice, DEA, and the Office of National Drug Control Policy who possess professional backgrounds in public health, addiction and treatment rather than in law enforcement.

3. Obama can support the autonomy and health of Washington D.C. voters by encouraging Congress to lift the so-called “Barr amendment” (passed by Congress in 1998 and reinstated every year since then), which prohibits the District of Columbia from implementing a 1998 voter-approved ballot initiative legalizing the use of marijuana by authorized patients.

4. Obama can call for the creation of a bipartisan Presidential commission to review the budgetary, social and health costs associated with federal marijuana prohibition, and to make progressive recommendations for future policy changes.

Ultimately, of course, it’s Congress, not the president, who is responsible for crafting America’s oppressive federal anti-drug strategies. Moreover, it is clear that in the coming years this battle will continue to primarily be fought — and won — on the state level, not in Washington D.C.

That’s not to say that we should not continue to keep the pressure on Obama by continuing to post questions to websites like Change.gov. (My suggestion for the next round of voting How about: “On Election Day, over 3 million voters decided to legalize the medical use of cannabis in Michigan, making it the 13th state to enact laws allowing the legal medical use of marijuana. While campaigning, you pledged: ‘What I’m not going to be doing is spend Justice Department resources to try and circumvent state laws on this issue.’ As President, will you and your Attorney General uphold this promise not to target and prosecute patients and providers who are in compliance with state medical marijuana laws?“)

However, we must always remember that it will be the actions of tens of thousands — not the actions of just one man — that will ultimately bring an end to America’s vindictive and senseless war on cannabis consumers.

Now let’s get back to work!