Get Higher

01.21.14

Ending the War on Pot is Obama’s Last Chance for a Legacy

Obama says he doesn’t want to end up a forgotten, no-name president. His refreshingly frank comments on marijuana legalization suggest a big way he could make that happen.

David Remnick’s new, long profile of President Barack Obama in The New Yorker is filled with all sorts of revelatory tidbits, none more interesting than the ones about his vast ambition—“He didn’t want to be Millard Fillmore or Franklin Pierce”—and his softening, though still ambivalent, attitude toward marijuana legalization at the state level. “It’s important for it to go forward,” he said, reversing past statements that were anti-pot.

With just three years left in office and a possible Republican landslide in the fall’s midterm elections, Obama must be in something close to panic mode. His health care plan seems like it’s imploding, his foreign policy and civil liberties record is awful, and the economy is still barely stumbling forward into an uncertain future. Enthusiastically winding down the federal war on pot would be popular with voters and, as important, wouldn’t require immediate cooperation from Congress.

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin tells Remnick that in 2007, Obama explained, “I have no desire to be one of those presidents who are just on the list—you see their pictures lined up on the wall. … I really want to be a President who makes a difference.” But Obama’s approval ratings are mired in the low 40s, a reality he partially—and unconvincingly—attributes to racism: “There’s some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black president.” As HotAir’s Ed Morrissey notes, the existence of rump racists completely fail to explain Obama’s two electoral victories and his 60 percent-plus approval ratings at the start of his presidency. A far better explanation is simply that he’s failed to accomplish much of anything the public likes.

But there’s one thing left Obama could do to finally become the change he wanted to be: declare a swift and honorable peace in the decades-long war on pot. The drug war in toto has been a long-running and ineffective disaster that disrespects individual autonomy, corrupts law enforcement, and undermines the rule of law. By ending the war on pot, he would be remembered as a true visionary.

It wouldn’t be hard. Focus on the issues of fairness and basic common sense that already have fully 58 percent of Americans in favor of legalization. The president told Remnick that he doesn’t think marijuana “is more dangerous than alcohol.” That hasn’t stopped Obama from conducting more raids on medical marijuana dispensaries in California than George W. Bush and speaking through a drug czar who announced that “legalization is not in the president’s vocabulary.” But now Obama recognizes that, “It’s important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished.”

If Obama announced that he was de-prioritizing the federal government’s war on pot, he would almost certainly be joined by a growing number of libertarian Republicans.

About 750,000 people are arrested each year for pot, with almost nine of 10 arrests being for simple possession. Those are huge, disturbing numbers made all the more troubling by something else Obama is finally grokking. “Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do,” he told Remnick. “And African-American kids and Latino kids are more likely to be poor and less likely to have the resources and the support to avoid unduly harsh penalties.”

If Obama announced that he was de-prioritizing the federal government’s war on pot—not even on all drugs, but just marijuana—he would almost certainly be joined by a growing number of libertarian Republicans who think drug policy is a state-level issue. Indeed, if Obama framed the issue explicitly in federalist terms, he could likely count on the support of characters such as Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan.

As important, he wouldn’t need congressional buy-in to get this party started. It's fully within the president's power—power that he has happily exceeded when it comes to waging wars overseas and delaying aspects of Obamacare—to start the process to reclassify pot from a Schedule I drug to something more credible (a Schedule I drug is deemed to have a high potential for abuse, no known or accepted use as medicine, and no reliable safe dose). That alone would kickstart a long overdue national conversation about the costs and benefits of prohibition.

If Obama really thinks pot is no more dangerous than alcohol and that the war on pot systematically screws over minorities, why should he have any hesitation in liberalizing the federal policies over which he has control? And using the bully pulpit to push for broader legislative change at the federal and state level? What is he waiting for, a third term?

Time to get moving, President Obama. Unless you’re willing to share wall space with Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce.