The President’s Drug Problem

Deborah Small

President Obama has a drug problem, if he doesn’t treat it properly it can threaten the fragile political coalition he’s successfully shepherded up to now. Obama’s drug problem has little to do with his admitted past drug use but has everything to do with his continued support for punitive drug policies that no longer have public support and are causing significant harm to one of his core constituencies – African-Americans.

In November, voters in the states of Washington and Colorado approved initiatives to legalize the non-medical use of marijuana by adults, and authorized state legislators to establish a system for taxing and regulating cannabis and cannabis-products. In approving these initiatives voters were knowingly challenging federal law, which classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug with no legitimate use under any circumstance.

It remains unclear how the Obama administration plans to address the issue during his second term.

In early December the New York Times reported “senior White House and Justice Department officials are considering plans for legal action against Colorado and Washington that could undermine voter-approved initiatives to legalize the recreational use of marijuana in those states.”

During an interview with Barbara Walters, President Obama told Walters he does not – “at this point” – support widespread legalization of marijuana. He said recreational users of marijuana in states that have legalized the substance should not be a “top priority” of federal law enforcement officials. “We’ve got bigger fish to fry.”

If the experience of the past four years has taught us anything, it is to parse the words of Obama and his officials about most issues concerning drug policy. Back in 2009 drug reform advocates were elated when Attorney General Holder advised that federal officials in states that legalized medical marijuana should not use their limited resources to prosecute users and those in compliance with state law, but should focus instead on large-scale drug trafficking organizations.

Nonetheless, there has been a major federal crackdown on medical marijuana dispensaries and cultivators throughout the region. Federal prosecutors threatened Oakland city officials with arrest if they moved forward with a plan to license industrial-size grow facilities to provide quality cannabis to California patients, and over the past year the East Bay has witnessed the forced closure of many legitimate and long-standing dispensaries including one of the national leaders in the medical cannabis movement – the Berkeley Patients Group.

I think it’s ironic that federal prosecutors have used the threat of civil asset forfeiture to threaten landlords that leased their property to medical marijuana dispensaries and growers, and laws against money-laundering to threaten banks that did business with them, but the same Justice Department was unwilling to enforce the same laws against HSBC despite clear proof the bank laundered more than $800 million from Mexican drug cartels. (Falls under the category of things that make you go Hmmm??)

Obama’s rejection of marijuana legalization flies directly in the face of changing public opinion. More Coloradans voted in favor of legalizing marijuana than voted for President Obama. According to a recent CBS News and Quinnipiac poll, Americans are now evenly divided on the question of whether marijuana should be legalized and among the President’s base – more than 50% of Democratic voters and more than 55% of Independents support legalization. Among young voters – a critical component of Obama’s coalition support for marijuana legalization continues its upward trend.

Some commentators have noted that Obama’s statement that he is “not yet” ready to go there on legalizing marijuana is similar to his early presidential statements on marriage equality, suggesting that his views could ‘evolve.’ If so, they wouldn’t have to evolve far – just back to his college days when he was one of the leaders of the pot-smoking “Choom Gang.” Hopefully, he’ll want others to have the same type of ‘treatment’ for their drug issues that he had – education that enabled him to be a critical thinker and the opportunity to become an engaged civic leader. We can’t allow him to puff, puff and pass ....... the buck of failed drug policies to yet another generation.

Small is Executive Director of Break the Chains: Communities of Color and the War on Drugs and is a member of the NLG’s Mass Incarceration Committee.