An Open Letter to Barack Obama About Marijuana

Dear Senator Obama,

I was one of many voters who applauded Senator Chris Dodd last fall for advocating that marijuana be decriminalized. Accordingly, I was one of many voters who was disappointed to see you raise your hand in the Oct. 30 MSNBC debate, indicating that you did not agree with Dodd's common sense position.

You and I are both among the estimated 97 million Americans who have smoked marijuana. In light of your own experience, I would have expected you to understand that a criminal marijuana conviction might have put your life on a very different track, one which would not have led to the United States Senate, let alone the presidency. So it was nice to read that you favor marijuana decriminalization after all -- in fact, the Washington Times reports that you have "always" held this position, and that you raised your hand in error.

I understand that you are surrounded by advisers who probably spend a lot of time and effort encouraging you to play it safe and avoid issues that could distract from your candidacy. Perhaps that's why you reluctantly raised your hand in the debate, and I'm sure it's why you never clarified your position.

But now that you have been outed as somebody who prefers President Jimmy Carter's position on marijuana over President Richard Nixon's position (nothing to be ashamed of!), please make the most of this opportunity to separate yourself from Senator Clinton by pointing out the obvious -- that marijuana prohibition has not achieved any of its stated goals, and penalties for marijuana possession need to be reconsidered.

When the inevitable attacks occur, they will be weaker than you expect, and they can be defused with a simple history lesson. In particular, you might want to remind people about the Shafer Commission Report ("National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse"), which was published in 1972. President Nixon had named the former governor of Pennsylvania, Republican Raymond Shafer, to preside over this commission, but Nixon didn't get the answer he was looking for. The commission recommended that marijuana should be decriminalized. From the report:

[T]he criminal law is too harsh a tool to apply to personal possession even in the effort to discourage use. It implies an overwhelming indictment of the behavior which we believe is not appropriate. The actual and potential harm of use of the drug is not great enough to justify intrusion by the criminal law into private behavior, a step which our society takes only with the greatest reluctance.

President Carter worked to have these recommendations implemented in 1977. Here's what he told Congress:

Penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself; and where they are, they should be changed. Nowhere is this more clear than in the laws against possession of marijuana in private for personal use. We can, and should, continue to discourage the use of marijuana, but this can be done without defining the smoker as a criminal. States which have already removed criminal penalties for marijuana use, like Oregon and California, have not noted any significant increase in marijuana smoking. The National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse concluded five years ago that marijuana use should be decriminalized, and I believe it is time to implement those basic recommendations.

Therefore, I support legislation amending Federal law to eliminate all Federal criminal penalties for the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana. This decriminalization is not legalization. It means only that the Federal penalty for possession would be reduced and a person would receive a fine rather than a criminal penalty. Federal penalties for trafficking would remain in force and the states would remain free to adopt whatever laws they wish concerning the marijuana smoker.

Unfortunately for society, Carter's effort was not successful, and prohibition fever swept the United States in the 1980's and 1990's. A prison-industrial complex developed and learned sophisticated lobbying techniques to expand its business. This meant ruining a lot of people's lives, people who had never done anything to harm anybody else, but the policy was justified by a naive belief that harsh penalties would stop people from trying marijuana. They haven't.

Since Carter left office, Democrats have been almost as guilty of perpetuating the failed policy as Republicans. In the case of President Bill Clinton, one could say they have been more guilty.

Clinton is widely remembered as the president who "didn't inhale" marijuana, but as president he continued to escalate the War on Marijuana to levels unreached by his predecessors Reagan and Bush. Marijuana arrests increased dramatically over the course of the Clinton Administration (over 4,175,357 Americans were arrested on marijuana charges between 1992-99), and it's certainly worth asking if Senator Clinton would emulate her husband's Nixonian approach to marijuana policy.

What's most nauseating about President Clinton's marijuana record is that he claimed to favor marijuana decriminalization, but only after leaving office. "I think that most small amounts of marijuana have been decriminalized in some places, and should be," he told Rolling Stone in December, 2000.

So I hope you will have the audacity to stand for justice on this issue. There are 2.3 million people incarcerated in this country, Senator, and this crazy, utopian experiment in plant prohibition has gone way too far. If we need another "Shafer Commission" to tell us again what we should have learned 35 years ago, let's have one. Whatever it takes, we've got to get our heads out of the sand and acknowledge the unintended consequences of our failed marijuana policy.