Obama Talks Marijuana, Lighting up Legalization Debate
Americans should be proud of their president today. No, he didn’t fix the Obamacare website. No, he didn’t convince Iran to give up its nuclear aspirations. No, he didn’t craft comprehensive regulations to curb Wall Street abuses. All he did was make a few comments about marijuana and, by extension, America’s perennial war on drugs. This wasn’t something he had to do. It wasn’t in his interest. With a plummeting approval rating in the wake of the Affordable Care Act’s bumpy rollout, an underwhelming jobs report and a string of scandals involving such colorful subjects as Benghazi, the IRS and NSA spying, President Obama had no incentive to take controversial stance on a peripheral issue. And yet, at a time of extreme political vulnerability, he chose to expend precious political capital on, of all things, marijuana. A shrewd politician attuned to public opinion, Obama surely anticipated such a reaction from conservatives, sniffing around for blood in the water. But that didn’t stop him.
Marijuana reform is a particularly timely subject in the wake of Colorado’s historic legalization of cannabis for recreational purposes, as well as lesser but still-promising reforms in other states. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo, no friend of marijuana reform, took the unprecedented step of permitting the distribution of marijuana for narrow medicinal purposes. Still, even if the tide of history is flowing towards legalization, any shift in public opinion is still in its early stages. Marijuana, long associated with minorities and the counterculture, provokes kneejerk condemnations from many social conservatives. Couple this with pervasive concern over health risks, particularly on adolescents, embracing marijuana reform is a risky proposition for any politician, much less the president of the United States.
At first, the Obama Administration seemed to heed this conventional wisdom, prosecuting cultivators and retailers with a ferocity that exceeded that of even the Bush Administration. However, recent events may presage a change in policy. Last September, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the federal government would allow states to enforce their own marijuana laws, provided they kept the drug out of the hands of minors. The Obama Administration faced considerable criticism for its decision. All of this begs the question: with a foundation in place for more lenient enforcement, why would Obama criticize federal drug enforcement policies personally? Furthermore, if legalization is, as some claim, inevitable, why force the issue now?
The answer is, in a word, conscience. As a habitual pot smoker (read: stoner) in his youth, he realized that under different circumstances, he could have ended up in jail. With his comments yesterday, President Obama displayed some of the idealism that won over voters in 2008. He knows that for some, strict marijuana laws are far more than a matter of inconvenience. Many offenders, from lowly street dealers to major cultivators, are victims of draconian “mandatory minimum” sentences currently in place. Squandering resources on enforcing strict regulations on a drug that President Obama considers no worse than alcohol and cigarettes is cruel and counterproductive.
Only Barrack Obama knows what’s going in Barack Obama’s head. Still, it seems unlikely that our first black president doesn’t feel some obligation to trim the excesses of a war on drugs that disproportionately harms African Americans. It’s also not unreasonable to conjecture that he sees some of himself in its victims. Under the right circumstances, Obama could have been one of numerous African Americans incarcerated for marijuana offenses. The experience of jumping from the frying pan of jail into the fire of unemployment in a stagnant job market might have turned this alternate reality Barack into a hardened criminal. After all, who would take a chance hiring an ex-con named Barack Obama?
Obama recognizes that nothing costs America more than the wasted potential of its youth. Those without a sense of urgency when it comes to legalization should not lose sight of the fact that marijuana policies are destroying lives every day. With luck, President Obama’s words from the bully pulpit, with the weight of the presidency behind them, will move the needle just a little further in direction of legalization and, by extension, justice.