03.30.09

Obama's Marijuana Buzz Kill

The formerly cool president could have given a reasoned response to a question about legalizing pot. Instead, he was dismissive and insulted his stoner constituency.

Barack Obama’s first online town-hall meeting may have been a new media success, but he lost the stoner vote.

Asked whether he would seek to legalize marijuana as a strategy to boost the economy, the usually long-winded president—who famously admitted to his own youthful inhalations—answered with little more than a dismissive “No.”

Whereupon America’s laid-back lobby recoiled in, well, withdrawal. Where was the love?

Obama may rue his decision to offend America’s no-longer-so-mellow cannabis consumers.

More than 64,000 viewers posted about 104,000 questions online for the virtual meeting, the topic of which was the president’s budget. Of those questions, Obama answered seven that were preselected based on interest as measured by online votes.

Apparently, a significant portion of those casting 3.6 million votes wanted to talk pot.

Obama joked that he wasn’t sure what the question’s popularity said about his online audience (snarf, snarf), but said he doesn’t think legalization is a good strategy to grow our economy.

Dude.

While a live audience applauded approvingly, Obama’s virtual audience sank into despair. Internet threads in the days since have reflected disappointment and disillusionment. What happened to the president they thought they knew? You know, the cool one who once said that inhaling was “the whole point”? What happened to the guy who loves online audiences? You know, the ones who put Obama in office?

The pot questions—there were variations on a tax-and-regulate theme—had been stoked by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Within hours of the president’s rebuff, NORML got to work organizing reform-minded Americans in a letter-writing campaign. Obama may rue his decision to offend America’s no-longer-so-mellow cannabis consumers.

Just what’s so funny about marijuana-law reform, asks Paul Armentano, NORML’s deputy director. An American is arrested for pot every 38 seconds, he says. Since 1965, more than 20 million Americans have been arrested for marijuana offenses, 90 percent of them for simple possession.

And despite baby boomers being in charge in recent years—the relevance of which can be enumerated as 1-9-6-8, otherwise known as the year America turned on—annual pot busts have tripled since the non-inhaling Bill Clinton took office.

It isn’t only marijuana consumers who want to see weed legalized. (None other than William F. Buckley was for it.) Ending prohibition is also a popular cause for at least 10,000 cops, narcs, judges, and others who make up the membership of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

From LEAP’s down-and-dirty perspective, prohibition exacerbates rather than ameliorates America’s drug problem. Prohibition not only diverts resources from the pursuit of more-serious crimes, it empowers criminals and enhances black-market incentives. Money spent fighting what adults seem to want could be better allocated toward education and rehab.

The argument, meanwhile, that pot is a gateway drug to harder substances is true only to the extent that kids who try pot realize they’ve been lied to. If the pot-will-make-you-insane warning is so obviously false, then kids may figure that warnings about more serious drugs must also be so much smoke.

Far more dangerous to pot consumers than severe munchies, or the risk that one may become temporarily riveted by the charms of tiny things, is the gateway marijuana now serves to the criminal world. Legalization (or at least decriminalization) may not eliminate the black market, but it would severely diminish its power and appeal.

Harvard economist Jeffrey A. Miron recently urged legalization of all drugs, not just marijuana, as the only way to eliminate violence associated with the drug cartels now moving into the United States. More border patrol and more narcotics agents are more likely to exacerbate than reduce violence, he argues. Did we learn nothing from Al Capone?

As for the economic ramifications of legalized weed, there can be little doubt that marijuana would provide a welcome cash transfusion for a financially anemic nation. By Miron’s estimates, federal, state, and local governments spend roughly $44 billion a year to fund prohibition. Through regulation and taxation at rates akin to those on alcohol and tobacco, those same governments could collect $33 billion a year.

And that’s not good economic strategy?

As a bonus, we’d empty court logs of frivolous possession cases; redirect resources to deal with, for instance, 400,000 rape kits that today sit unopened (and in many cases useless as the statutes of limitations have passed) because the cops were too busy busting adults for gazing too long at sunsets. We might also minimize the attraction of the illicit and make kids less likely to visit the black market.

All while raking in billions! Put a smiley face on that bailout.

Obama’s tone-deafness Thursday was unaccountably odd, given that the success of his virtual town-hall meetings depends on an online audience. And given that a healthy chunk of the online audience is youngish, possibly potheadish, and voted Obamaish, why not toss the marijuana lobby a crumb, preferably chocolate chip?

How hard would it have been to say something like: “Cool idea, brah, but...” OK, maybe not. But why not something reasonable and presidential, such as:

“Look, I’m not ready to legalize marijuana tomorrow, but I do think it’s time to take a fresh look at the effectiveness of some of our criminal justice policies. And I support Sen. James Webb’s current efforts to do just that.

“I also don’t mean to make light of this issue because I know that a lot of kids wind up in jail who shouldn’t. And I know from personal experience that smoking marijuana is not a career-ender. But I do want to study this issue carefully before I suggest any broad changes in policy. Thank you for your question.”

Everyone would have gone home reasonably satisfied, if not quite ready to celebrate. Instead, Obama enjoyed a brief flashback and insulted his merrier minions.

As pot smokers blanket the White House with letters of protest, Obama may want to rethink his position. He not only has ticked off a portion of his grass-roots, so to speak, but, when the Chinese come to collect interest on those trillions, he may find it preferable that more, rather than fewer, Americans be mellow.

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group and author of Save the Males.