Puff, puff, give us a break, Mr. President
There was a time when the government told the public that smoking the demon weed marijuana could turn you into a killer. Marijuana has come a long way from the “reefer madness” days. Today, twenty states and the District of Columbia allow medical marijuana with two, Colorado and Washington, allowing the recreational sale and use of weed, with more states in the bong line… I mean pipeline.
However, even in this day of blasé attitudes about marijuana, President Obama set off a furor when he told David Remnick in the New Yorker magazine, “As has been well documented, I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life. I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.” Those remarks have left anti-drug groups and police and sheriffs’ organizations outraged. They claim the administration is sending mixed messages.
They’re right! With the White House reiterating its opposition to legalization after the interview, the administration’s hands off approach to Colorado and Washington while continuing the DEA’s raids on medical marijuana dispensaries, I agree with those organizations and police that it’s a muddled message. So the administration should move to clear it up by coming out for legalization.
Fifty-five percent of Americans in a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll support allowing regulated businesses to sell marijuana. Most Americans scratch their heads when they learn that marijuana, as a Schedule 1 drug, is in the same federal category as heroin, the drug that took the life of revered actor Philip Seymour Hoffman this past Sunday. There’s a reason why you don’t hear about people overdosing on marijuana. That’s because it doesn’t happen. The only thing pot smokers are ODing on is Funyuns, Cap’n Crunch and Mountain Dew.
If you don’t believe me, there are plenty of places online to get facts on marijuana. Last year, CNN’s chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta famously switched positions and became an advocate of medical marijuana after studying the literature. He discovered that not only is marijuana not lethal, it does help the medical conditions of some users, and only 9 or 10% of users develop a dependence. Compare that to 30% of cigarette smokers who become hooked and the 440,000 deaths cigarette smoking causes each year. Whoever banned pot and legalized tobacco had to be high on something and it wasn’t weed.
I know I’m not going to convince the skeptics. I’m upset with our government on this issue. First, why aren’t small government conservative Republicans pushing for marijuana legalization? When the First Lady adopted a program to get Americans to eat healthier, exercise and fight obesity, conservatives blasted her as some nanny state czar who wanted to deny us the right to eat ourselves to death. Remember Sarah Palin bringing cookies to schoolchildren?
If the right wants government out of our food choices, then shouldn’t marijuana legalization be a states rights issue? Shouldn’t they repeal the reefer madness? If we have the right to eat artery clogging fast food, drink alcohol until we black out, smoke cigarettes that make us sick, then why is this drug, that’s safer than all of those other things, the target of federal intrusion?
But my real argument right now is with President Obama. In his New Yorker interview and a subsequent interview with CNN, he mentioned that our marijuana laws disproportionately affect poor blacks and Latinos. Every year we arrest about 750,000 people for marijuana violations, half of all drug arrests. And it’s true that minorities are arrested at a disproportional rate given that blacks and whites have similar marijuana usage rates.
President Obama talks about this issue like he’s still teaching constitutional law in a classroom. He’s not working for an organization lobbying for medical marijuana, gathering signatures for a marijuana ballot measure and he’s no two-bit newspaper columnist advocating for decriminalization. He’s not even your average Joe on a bar stool debating with friends. He’s the President. He has the power to change the things he mentioned.
Contrary to what he told CNN in an interview about Congress having to reclassify marijuana, that’s not true. His administration has the authority to remove marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug. He has the ability to stop the DEA from raiding medical marijuana dispensaries. If there are poor minority inmates doing disproportionate time in federal prison, he has the authority to commute those sentences. A President has quite a bit of discretion when it comes to how he enforces marijuana laws. Prosecutors make decisions every day about what they are or aren’t going to enforce because, like the President told CNN, the feds don’t have the resources to “police whether someone is smoking a joint on the corner.”
Yes, the President is sending mixed messages. He could be full throated when he tells the American public that the war on marijuana has been a miserable failure. The scientific evidence thus far supports the fact that, while the drug isn’t harmless, it’s not on the same level as heroin. It’s not alcohol, the drug that causes the most social destruction in this country by far. He can take the steps above while challenging Congress to change laws where necessary. And at the same time he can come out forcefully against minors using marijuana because we’re talking about adults making this choice.
And we haven’t even touched the potential tax revenue and savings to law enforcement and the criminal justice system.
So, President Obama, if you really believe these things you’ve said to reporters about marijuana, then stop pretending you’re impotent. You’re not one of us in the chattering class. You can act.