Obama and Pot

David Maraniss‘ forthcoming biography of President Obama reports that in high school and college, Obama not only inhaled, he was a rather intense user.

This quote from Penn Jillette is apropos:

Do we believe, even for a second, that if Obama had been busted for marijuana — under the laws that he condones — would his life have been better? If Obama had been caught with the marijuana that he says he uses, and ‘maybe a little blow’… if he had been busted under his laws, he would have done hard fucking time. And if he had done time in prison, time in federal prison, time for his ‘weed’ and ‘a little blow,’ he would not be President of the United States of America. He would not have gone to his fancy-ass college, he would not have sold books that sold millions and millions of copies and made millions and millions of dollars, he would not have a beautiful, smart wife, he would not have a great job. He would have been in fucking prison, and it’s not a god damn joke. People who smoke marijuana must be set free. It is insane to lock people up.

I would really like some reporter to ask Obama if he thinks it would have been for the best if young Barry Obama’s life had been derailed by a drug conviction.

Paul Waldman writes:

The reason, of course, is fear, the force that governs so many decisions politicians make. At the moment, there remains a strong incentive to support the status quo, lest you be targeted in your next race as some kind of hippie-lover. The incentives on the other side, on the other hand, are almost nil. When was the last time somebody lost a race for being too tough on drugs? The half of Americans who favor marijuana legalization are not an organized voting bloc that gets together to punish its opponents at the polls… it may be some time before we have a real debate—the kind with two sides—on this issue.

I think it also hurts that the people hurt least by the current system are well-off whites; marijuana laws are disproportionately enforced against young Black people. (Unsurprisingly, the history of marijuana prohibition is thoroughly intertwined with racism.)

Usually I think people are too quick to blame Obama for dreadful federal policy; the President is not a dictator, and very often Obama doesn’t actually have the power to unilaterally change policy.

In this case, however, I think anger at Obama is exactly right. First of all, for the hypocrisy Jillette points out. (Even worse than the hypocrisy, imo, is the utter lack of compassion).

Second of all, when Obama was running for president he promised to lighten up on the federal war on medical marijuana. It’s very reasonable to be angry with Obama for explicit promises broken.

And finally, Obama does have unilateral powers when it comes to medical marijuana.

Marijuana is categorized as schedule I, which means it legally has no accepted medical use. This is why medical marijuana, while legal under some state laws, is illegal under federal law.

However, the law explicitly gives the executive branch the power to change the scheduling of particular drugs without needing Congressional action. Obama can instruct the relevant agencies under him to take an honest look at the research and reschedule marijuana so it qualifies as having legitimate medical uses. The Obama administration could easily and justifiably move marijuana to, say, schedule III, which happens to be the same schedule that synthetic THC is in, making medical marijuana legal under federal law.

There would be nothing unusual, extraordinary or legally suspect about Obama doing this. The executive branch has often moved certain drugs to lower or higher schedules based on new data without Congressional involvement. In fact, multiple sitting governors have petitioned the Obama administration asking him to move marijuana to a lower schedule, so he should be aware of the flexible authority he has.

But why would Obama do that? Obama doesn’t believe that he’ll lose any significant number of votes because he has no compassion when it comes to marijuana issues, and that’s the bottom line.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much we can do. After all, it’s not as if Mitt Romney is going to promote more compassionate policies, and Gary Johnson, while better on pot, is far worse than Obama on many other issues. Nor is there an effective pot lobby to support. In the long run, it’s possible that marijuana legalization will win through attrition, as those Americans who are most against pot, who tend to be older, die off. But in the short run, I can’t find much reason for hope that things will improve.

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18 Responses to Obama and Pot

  1. 1
    RonF says:

    I don’t know if I’d use the word “fear”. He’s just doing the math and doing the Chicago politician thing that he’s done his entire political career; make promises to people so he gets their vote and then ignore them once he gets into office. He knows that the kind of people who voted for him because one of his promises was to lower the Federal sanctions on weed aren’t likely to vote for his opponent when he breaks that promise – there’s too many other issues. He also knows that people who voted for him despite that promise are more likely to consider voting against him if he actually carries through on that promise.

    Obama doesn’t believe that he’ll lose any significant number of votes because he has no compassion when it comes to marijuana issues, and that’s the bottom line.

    And he knew that when he made the promise, folks. He made that promise knowing he wasn’t going to keep it. Because he’s a Chicago politician. And that’s how they do. So I wonder – is this actually a surprise to anyone? Did any of you actually think he was going to keep this promise?

    As far as racist enforcement of marijuana laws, I imagine there’s some in there. But it would be interesting to see a breakdown by color of the arresting officer as well as the arrestee, though, and the circumstances under which the arrest took place. I also figure that there’s also a heavy involvement of the concept that arresting a white kid is more likely to result in a private lawyer showing up in court for the kid who’ll get the kid off, which looks to the arresting officer a whole lot like a waste of his/her time, so they just say “F’ it”.

  2. 2
    Jake Squid says:

    Chicago politician thing? Seems to me that’s just a politician thing.

  3. 3
    chingona says:

    Obama has eased federal enforcement on medical marijuana significantly. Anyone who lives in a state with legal medical marijuana has seen that industry explode since Obama took office. He’s re-hardened his position somewhat in the last year, and I have a very hard time believing it’s not political. I fully expect to see Denver city blocks with three or four dispensaries in a single block show up in anti-Obama ads at some point this year.

    I pretty much agree with the criticisms laid out in this post, but he didn’t not follow through with his campaign promise. He followed through somewhat but incompletely.

    And yeah, I think that’s pretty much a politician thing.

  4. 4
    Charles S says:

    RonF, the race of the arresting officer is irrelevant. Black police officers are perfectly capable of carrying out racist policy against black people. Likewise, the fact that the criminal justice system views black people as easier pickings is probably a significant factor in why the criminal justice system is so racist in its execution. It is not an alternate explanation. If the police are more likely to arrest a black person than a white person and DAs are more likely to charge and prosecute a black person than a white person, it doesn’t become non-racist if they are doing it because it is easier to get a conviction of a black person than a white person (either because white defendants are more likely to have better lawyers or because juries are simply more likely to convict black defendants).

  5. 5
    Elusis says:

    Obama has eased federal enforcement on medical marijuana significantly. Anyone who lives in a state with legal medical marijuana has seen that industry explode since Obama took office.

    Not in California (which, to be fair, is probably not Obama personally but is his administration.)

    The Bay Area has had a truly ridiculous amount of raids and other government actions against licensed dispensaries (including threats to take action against landlords renting property to dispensaries and threats of IRS action against dispensaries which deducted their business costs from their gross profits on their taxes, an action which is legal if you are in basically any industry other than medical marijuana). It culminated in a massive raid on Oaksterdam University recently, a local dispensary and school teaching medical cultivation techniques. A huge amount of their financial and material resources were seized, the president (who is a man with a disability who uses a wheelchair) was arrested and detained for several days, and eventually he resigned after they raided his home. It was a prime example of destroying a well-run, regulated dispensary, one that taught others how to run a marijuana clinic in a safe, legal, and well-regulated manner. Oaksterdam is still in business but barely hanging on as their students have scattered and much of their property is still confiscated by the police.

  6. 6
    mythago says:

    Jake Squid @3: “Chicago politician” is the new buzzphrase now that it’s harder to get the whole effete liberal thing to stick.

  7. 7
    Robert says:

    I’ve heard Chicago used as a special modifier for political processes or specific politicians all my life; if it’s the new “effete liberal” it’s been it for a long, long time.

    I appreciate Amp’s honesty in being pissed at Obama for being a huge liar about his drug policy, and for failing to take the opportunity to humanize our laws. I will admit being somewhat pissed at Bush for failing to “go to China” on the issue. Him going out late in his second term, maybe, and saying “you know, rich kids like me get away with fucking murder while poor kids who do the same thing have their lives destroyed and damn it, that isn’t cool” could have had a positive impact.

    Obama isn’t going to get a second term; maybe he will do the same thing as a Hail Mary at the end of his first.

  8. 8
    Ampersand says:

    I don’t want to go too far down this “Chicago politician” track, but I will say that although I’ve heard the phrase all my life, I’ve always heard it used to refer to corrupt politicians — in the sense of taking bribes, paying bribes, faking votes, etc.. If it only means “doesn’t keep campaign promises,” then it’s hard to see how that’s specific to Chicago at all.

  9. 9
    mythago says:

    I’ve heard Chicago used as a special modifier for political processes or specific politicians all my life

    As Amp notes, in the context of things like “vote early and vote often” or strongarm politics. David Frum correctly pointed out a while back that those who were sneering at Obama for being oneathem argula-eating liberals that he was elected to office in Chicago, which requires a level of ruthlessness, and those who underestimated him ought to keep that in mind. (At the time I remember thinking that anyone who got to run Harvard Law Review probably found Chicago politics a breeze compared to that level of politicking and infighting.)

    And, uh, wait, I thought progressives have been moaning and wailing about Obama not doing everything he said he would do since….forever?

  10. 10
    RonF says:

    I would say that there are a great number of politicians who have made campaign promises and then not kept them because once they were elected they found that the factors affecting their ability to keep them either were not what they had thought or expected or else their priorities were overtaken by events (like, say, someone flying a couple of 747′s into buildings full of people). Or they have tried but have been unable to overcome the opposition (e.g., when the Clinton healthcare plan effort failed).

    But to deliberately make a campaign promise you have no intention of even trying to keep purely to attract votes is far more mendacious and is a hallmark of politics in Chicago. It’s not just stuff like legalization of marijuana (which, BTW, I think makes a lot of sense). It includes promises to make government more transparent and ethical and then doing neither.

  11. 11
    Jake Squid says:

    Sounds like a ton of politicians I’ve seen in my times in New York, New York City, Westchester County, NY, Western MA, OR and WA, RonF. I see nothing exceptional about it. In fact, it’s part of the stereotype. Will Say Anything To Get Elected.

  12. 12
    Simple Truth says:

    Thanks to linking to the drug schedule. I’ve never looked at it before, and it’s fascinating what is ranked where. Morphine and opium are Schedule II drugs. Schedule II also includes cocaine. Why is marijuana ranked above those as more dangerous? What about it makes it in the same class as heroin?
    Ugh, terrible. I know more people addicted to Vicotin (Schedule III) than marijuana.

  13. 13
    chingona says:

    What’s our basis for saying he had no intention to keep his promise? For several years, his Justice Department stopped enforcing federal marijuana law against people complying with their state’s medical marijuana laws. That happened. It didn’t happen under Bush. In the last year, several U.S. Attorneys have stepped up their enforcement, but it has been selective. In Colorado, they have only targeted dispensaries within 1,000 feet of a school, and everyone has received warning letters and had the chance to shut down before they get raided. From a business perspective, that seriously sucks for them, but not nearly as much as going to prison for 25 years. Why is California different? I don’t know. Could Obama do more? Yes. Do I think he should do more? Yes. Is there anything remarkable about a politician partially following through on a campaign promise and then pulling back when he decides the unintended consequences (pot shops on every corner) are more politically risky than he’s comfortable with? No.

  14. 14
    james says:

    In the long run, it’s possible that marijuana legalization will win through attrition, as those Americans who are most against pot, who tend to be older, die off. But in the short run, I can’t find much reason for hope that things will improve.

    I think the graph you linked to is incredible. Support for criminalisation had dropped from 73% in ’96 to 46% now. As a comparison support for gay marriage being illegal has gone from 68% to 45% in the same time. Decriminalisation is certainly getting the sort of public shift in attitudes which could mean a change in the law, and far more people have smoked pot than are gay. I don’t see the situation as being bad at all.

  15. 15
    Ampersand says:

    Point well taken, James. Eventually, that momentum will make a difference.

    OTOH, I really don’t think the lobby for marijuana legalization is nearly as well-funded or well-organized as the lobby for lesbian and gay rights is, so I don’t think a direct comparison of the polls tell us everything.

  16. 16
    Robert says:

    “Eventually” might be this year. Warning: Colorado is a damn weird place and it is perilous in the extreme to generalize from us. But this is of interest.


  17. 17
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    Massachusetts recently decriminalized minor possession, as well. But of course, we’re awesome.

  18. 18
    RonF says:

    Chicago has knocked down possession of an ounce or less to a ticket – and the Chicago cops have got better things to do than to write tickets for weed. Unless you’ve attracted their attention for some other reason.