Obama and the Real Reefer Madness
The president has commuted a number of sentences of nonviolent drug offenders, but is his administration out of date and out of touch when it comes to marijuana?
You might think that the editor in chief of High Times—the New York-based monthly magazine whose mission is legalizing marijuana—would eagerly applaud President Obama for commuting the prison sentences this week of 46 nonviolent drug offenders.
But that isn’t the case.
Indeed, until recently, Dan Skye says, Barack Obama’s Justice Department has been brutally tough on enforcing federal drug laws, especially in the prosecution of growers and distributors of so-called medical marijuana.
“I’m not an Obama fan,” Skye told The Daily Beast, referring to the Leader of the Free World who recounted in his 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father, that he enjoyed “maybe a little blow” as a young man, and was famously a member of the pothead “Choom Gang” while a high school student in Honolulu.
“Of course he was a user!” said the 61-year-old Skye (the name he prefers professionally over his given name, Malcolm Mackinnon). “He’s an intelligent man. He knows marijuana is innocuous. He knows it doesn’t cause any harm. But he’s got to toe the party line. He’s got to say that it has no value. He was very dismissive during his first six years in office.”
Among the 46 convicted felons whose sentences the president shortened—part of a White House campaign to reform the criminal justice system, including Obama’s speech to the NAACP in Philadelphia on Tuesday afternoon and a planned presidential visit Thursday to a prison in Oklahoma—the overwhelming majority were incarcerated on crack cocaine violations, some for terms of 30 years and longer.
Only three of the commuted sentences involved cannabis convictions—that of Jerome Wayne Johnson of Fort White, Florida, sentenced to 60 months behind bars and five years’ supervised release for growing and selling more than 1,000 marijuana plants; Bart Stover of Ashland, Ohio, sentenced to 240 months’ imprisonment and 10 years’ supervised release for selling pot and coke; and John M. Wyatt of Las Cruces, New Mexico, sentenced to 262 months’ imprisonment and eight years’ supervised release for selling pot.
“We had a lot of hope that things would change when Obama first came into office,” Skye said. “In February of his first year, [Attorney General] Eric Holder made a statement that the administration would not be targeting medical marijuana businesses—and then they did just the opposite.
“We had been very encouraged, but then he was as bad as Bush—worse than Bush.”
Skye continued: “In Obama’s first four years, there were more federal raids than in Bush’s first four years. It was disgraceful—and this was after they said they would not go after medical marijuana businesses…He seems to have a moral compass. He seems to be a thoughtful man. But it has taken awhile.”
Skye—who is blessed with a golden baritone that he has managed to monetize here and there doing commercial work and narrating documentaries—was eloquent, impassioned, informed and quick-witted during the interview, a faculty that was unaffected (or possibly even enhanced) by the fact that he’s a frequent marijuana smoker.
“I like getting high,” he confessed—though he later amended that observation to suggest that cannabis simply improves his mood, it doesn’t intoxicate him. “I smoke every day, and at different times during the day,” he said. “I probably smoked before [this] interview. I smoked it before a lot of interviews—The New York Times, New York Magazine, and others.”
Skye added: “Before this is turned into a joke, understand that people don’t smoke to get high, as if they’re doing heroin or something like that. They smoke to feel better—to feel good. They’re not doing it to feel high…I’m not a pot addict. It’s my habit, but I smoke no more than any other average pot smoker.”
Skye recently wrote a letter to Obama urging him to legalize pot—by executive order, if necessary—and added: “That’s why we took the liberty of posing you on our August 2015 issue standing in a marijuana garden, holding a red, white and blue bong and giving the plant a ‘thumbs up!’ That’s our dream…Free us!”
Skye’s letter continued: “The war that the government has waged on its citizens to forcibly stop them from using marijuana has been tragic and costly: 15 million arrests, a soaring prison population, families destroyed, billions of tax dollars wasted…Right now, according to the Controlled Substances Act, cannabis is a Schedule I Drug: one with a high potential for abuse and no currently accepted medical use in the US.”
It’s a good thing Skye always has a spliff at the ready, because the White House’s reply by email last week did nothing to lighten his mood:
“This Administration opposes marijuana legalization, and our policy approach focuses on improving public health and safety through prevention, treatment, support for recovery, and innovative criminal justice strategies to break the cycle of drug use and crime. A considerable body of evidence shows that marijuana use, especially chronic use that begins at a young age, is associated with serious health and social problems. Studies also reveal that marijuana potency has tripled since 1990, raising serious public health concerns.”
Skye, however, argued that White House marijuana policy is not only badly misinformed, but also out of step with rapidly shifting public opinion—much in the same way that Obama led from behind on the issue of same-sex marriage.
“All the attitudes are changing toward marijuana,” he said. “The surveys change weekly, showing more and more favorability…But a lot of people are having their lives ruined.
“In the age of the Internet, if a marijuana arrest shows up, you can’t get a job, you can’t get a federal student loan. But if you drank all through high school and got bombed every weekend that’s okay, because ‘That’s what kids do.’”
Skye also claimed that there is ample scientific and sociological evidence that marijuana use can be beneficial in the mitigation of chemotherapy side effects and glaucoma, while causing zero injury to recreational users.
He even insisted that smoking the stuff is easy on the lungs, citing various marathon runners and other athletes who use it with no ill consequences.
And while he agrees that the purity of tetrathydrocannabinol—the active ingredient, known as TCH—has substantially increased since the 1960s and 1970s, all that means is that users take only one or two puffs instead of smoking the whole joint.
“This is the ultimate no-harm crime, whether you’re growing pot or selling it or smoking it,” Skye said. “People are serving ridiculous sentences… Nobody wants to see their kids going through this—being arrested for marijuana—and it’s particularly hard on the minority population…Mass arrests of people of color outnumber white arrests by a disproportionate amount.”
Another anomaly in the enforcement of marijuana laws is that while possession of threshold amounts, cultivation, and distribution are federal felonies, all those things are legal in five states (Alaska, California, Colorado, Oregon, Washington) and the District of Columbia.
Absent federal legalization, the country is a crazy quilt of contradictory laws.
For instance, while Colorado is marijuana-friendly, the neighboring states of Kansas and Nebraska treat the possession and sale of the herb as a serious offense, Skye said.
“Kansas and Nebraska are pretty bad,” he said. “Colorado is a wonderful state, where you can possess and smoke, but you have to worry if drive it to Kansas. They will profile you. If you have Colorado plates, watch out. They’re watching you.”