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Obama: (Reefer) Madness to Tackle Legalization?

Should Obama have tackled the marijuana issue during his recent online town hall meeting, or was he wise to shrug it off?
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Two themes emerge in response to my 3/28/09 post. Below, a shot at summarizing. Let's call the competing views Camp Yes, as in President Obama should have tackled the marijuana issue during his recent online town hall meeting, and Camp No representing those who believe he was wise to shrug it off.

Camp Yes
Barack Obama, along with at least two of his Oval Office predecessors, was a pot smoker (and cocaine snorter) in his younger days. "Youthful mistakes," declaim all three. (Why don't they, and multitudes of other public figures, just say they did it, they enjoyed it, they outgrew it. Or they calculated the risks of continued use vis-à-vis their upward mobility, and switched back to booze?) This president's drug use did not slow his march toward global eminence (any more than Michael Phelps's kept him from the gold). But if young Barry had been busted? For starters, you wouldn't know the man's name today. Camp Yes asks the president: Why not use your understanding of what a drug bust would have done to your own future to do right by tens of millions of unlucky others?

Countless Americans suffering from terminal illness and/or excruciating pain find relief not from commercial pharmaceuticals, and their sometimes ghastly side effects, but from cannabis. Patients risk arrest for purchasing, growing, or possessing this analgesic, naturally occurring medicine. The president's compassion for the sick and dying surely dictates action. Real change, Mr. President. Now, not later. Justice delayed is in fact justice denied.

Hemp is a self-renewing, eco-friendly product with virtually endless industrial and commercial applications. The manufacturing of hemp products should be legalized posthaste, its growth encouraged.

A casualty of the drug war has been our civil liberties, along with our faith in a system of governing that guarantees one's right to the pursuit of happiness--as defined not by the government but by the individual. As adult Americans, we enjoy sovereignty over our own bodies, and that includes what we choose to put into them.

It is the economy, stupid. Marijuana is the largest (untaxed) cash crop in 12 states, among the top three in 30 states, and far and away the country's most valuable crop. At an annual value of over $35 billion, marijuana outstrips the combined value of corn and wheat. Its legalization, taxation, and regulation would provide many jobs and help grow the economy, not insignificantly.

Legalization would deliver a devastating blow to Mexican drug cartels, and to street traffickers who sell to kids.

Presumed opposition to marijuana reform is speculative, grossly overstated, and "overfeared." The president was therefore shortsighted, politically, in dismissing the question of legalization. Further, his disregard of the vast online community that helped put him in the White House merely salted the wound.

Camp No
The president's refusal to consider the marijuana issue was smart politics, the only thing he could have done in that situation. Obama is simply too new to the job, too busy with the economic crisis, too exposed politically. Pot legalization is a third-rail: Put a finger to it and Mitt Romney or Sarah Palin winds up in the White House in 2012.

The subject of the Town Hall was the economy, stupid. If the president and his team are able to turn the economy around, and to win credit for it both here and abroad, he will have ample political capital to tackle controversial subjects like major drug policy reform. In his second term.

It's not his job. Congress makes law, the president executes it. Congress must muster the wisdom and courage to craft a bill, pass it, and put it on the president's desk. Consensus? He'd sign it.

The president did not diss his online supporters. He was simply having a little harmless fun with the question, actually helping to neutralize the exaggerated political baggage associated with pot.

Many in Camp No thought I should (a) cut the president some slack, (b) develop a sense of humor, and (c) recognize the limits of what a new president, even one as gifted as Barack Obama, could possibly accomplish in less than a hundred days (assuming he had opted to embrace marijuana reform in the first place).

For the record, I'm an Obama partisan. Like many others I was transfixed by his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Who is this guy? Is he for real? His March '08 speech on race (reacting to the Jeremiah Wright controversy) was, for me, the definitive political statement on the subject, honest, eloquent, inspiring. Many of his other speeches--and, yes, the sheer size of the crowds he drew--in Germany, in Portland, on election night in Chicago, at the inauguration filled me with awe and pride. I watched the returns on election night with dear friends, champagne mixing with tears and goosebumps (even as we understood our collusion with one another in setting unrealistically high expectations of the man).

I've borne witness to 13 presidents (12 within memory), from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Barack Hussein Obama. I believe we've just said goodbye to the worst in U.S. history, and hello to one who could turn out to be among the best. No other president in my lifetime has offered greater hope across a wide range of social and economic issues--including meaningful and comprehensive drug policy reform--than this man. His earlier statements on marijuana decriminalization and the "utter failure" of the drug war combined with his decision to put a halt to DEA raids on medical marijuana dispensaries bode well for reform.

The drug war rests on a constellation of harebrained laws, most of them enacted by earlier generations of frightened, ignorant, often racist lawmakers. It has been fueled by nonstop lies and propaganda, and kept alive over the years by a succession of eight U.S. presidents in concert with one generation after another of federal, state, and local law enforcers.

Dismantling the decades-old, massively bureaucratized and financed drug war machine is a daunting task. Knowing this, given all he's currently facing, shouldn't we cut Obama some slack?

On reflection, yes.

I believe if we do our part, continuing aggressively to advance the populist cause of drug law reform--calling, writing, phoning, visiting our lawmakers at the state and national level--the president will do his part.

But cutting him some slack does not mean letting Obama off the hook by indulging his tendency toward "extreme moderation." He is our chief executive. He has authority. He has a bully pulpit. He has the constitutional power of Executive Order. And he has a duty to take seriously issues important to his constituents, and vital to the health and safety of his country.