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Still, there is only so much the federal government can do to crack down on medical marijuana. The feds account for less than 1 percent of marijuana arrests, and the DEA has about 5,500 special agents nationwide, compared to more than 730,000 state and local law enforcement officers, including nearly 70,000 in California alone. “We’ve seen a lot of empty threats,” says Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access. “We have seen hundreds of letters from the Department of Justice to landlords, and they have not yet prosecuted landlords. Many have received the letters, ignored them, and not lost their property. I’ve seen over 500 raids since I started this organization [in 2002], and each of those raids involved at least three people. We’ve seen about 5 percent of those people get prosecuted. The day-to-day battle is 98 percent about intimidation.”
The emptiness of the federal government’s threats will become steadily clearer as the number of medical marijuana states grows and dispensaries proliferate. That is why U.S. attorneys intervened in the legislative process, actively discouraging states from authorizing dispensaries by intimidating governors and legislators with the possibility of a federal crackdown. Even scarier to dedicated drug warriors is the prospect raised by Proposition 19, the marijuana legalization initiative that attracted support from 46 percent of California voters last fall. “They were within striking distance of legalizing marijuana,” says Bill Piper, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance. “It’s probably freaking out a lot of people in law enforcement.” Similar efforts are under way in California, Colorado, and Washington, with an eye toward the 2012 elections.
Critics of such measures, like opponents of medical marijuana laws, say they are unconstitutional. That view is not only mistaken (see “Unbanned in Phoenix,” page 26) but beside the point. The federal government simply does not have the resources to enforce marijuana prohibition without assistance from the states. The feds can make trouble over the short term, but ultimately they will have to accommodate themselves to that reality. The Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2011, introduced in June by Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Ron Paul (R-Texas), points the way, leaving the states free to address marijuana as they see fit, with the national government’s role limited to blocking importation into states that continue to ban the drug.
Meanwhile, Obama, assuming he is re-elected, may have to contend not just with dispensaries that provide cannabis to patients but with state-legal pot shops that sell the drug just for fun. How will he react? “That’s the $64,000 question,” says Alison Holcomb, who is leading the effort to qualify a legalization initiative for Washington’s 2012 ballot. “We’re hoping that the answer is something similar to the Ogden memo in 2009, saying if people are playing by the rules and Washington state wants to give this a shot, we’re not going to spend federal resources going after them.”
We know how Obama responds when the question of marijuana legalization comes up in public: He laughs. The highest-rated questions submitted for his “virtual town meeting” in March 2009 dealt with pot prohibition. “I don’t know what this says about the online audience,” Obama said with a smirk, eliciting laughter from the live audience, “but…this was a fairly popular question.”
Obama’s dismissive attitude was especially galling in light of his own youthful pot smoking, which he presents in Dreams From My Father as a cautionary tale of near-disaster followed by redemption. “Junkie. Pothead,” he writes. “That’s where I’d been headed: the final, fatal role of the would-be black man.” Judging from the reports of friends interviewed by The New York Times in 2008, Obama exaggerated his brush with addiction for dramatic effect. More important, he has never publicly acknowledged the plain truth that people who smoke pot rarely become junkies or suffer any other serious harm as a result—unless they get caught.
As Richard Nixon’s National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse pointed out when Obama was all of 10 years old, the biggest risk people face when they smoke pot is created by the government’s attempts to stop them. In 1977, when Obama was a pot-smoking high school student in Honolulu, President Jimmy Carter advocated decriminalizing marijuana possession, telling Congress that “penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself.”
That is hardly a radical position. Polls indicate that most Americans think pot smokers should not be treated like criminals. In a 2002 CNN/Time poll, 72 percent of respondents said “people arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana” should “pay a fine but without serving any time in jail.” In a 2010 Newsweek poll, 55 percent of respondents endorsed a new California law that “will downgrade the possession of one ounce of marijuana from a misdemeanor to an infraction similar to a traffic ticket, punishable by a simple $100 fine and no arrest record.” While running for the U.S. Senate in 2004, Obama told a group of students at Northwestern University he supported that sort of policy, saying “we need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws.” But three years later, when he was running for the Democratic presidential nomination, he changed his mind, saying he was against decriminalization.
Obama’s reversal on this issue is hard to reconcile with his avowed concerns about the drug war’s disproportionate impact on minorities. Research by Queens College sociologist Harry Levine shows that blacks are much more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, even though survey data indicate they are no more likely to smoke pot. In New York City, where marijuana arrests have increased dramatically since the late 1990s, blacks are five times as likely to be busted as whites. The number of marijuana arrests by the New York Police Department (NYPD) from 1997 through 2006 was 11 times the number in the previous 10 years, despite the fact that possession of up to 25 grams (about nine-tenths of an ounce) has been decriminalized in New York. Levine found that police routinely trick people into taking out their marijuana, thereby converting a citable offense (possession) into a misdemeanor (public display). The arrests are racially skewed mainly because they stem from a “stop and frisk” program that targets black neighborhoods.
Obama attended Columbia University in the early 1980s, well before the big increase in marijuana arrests that began a decade later. There were about 858,000 pot arrests nationwide in 2009, more than twice the number in 1980, and the crackdown has been especially aggressive in New York City under Mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg (another former pot smoker). “The odds are not bad,” observes Ethan Nadelmann, “that a young Barry Obama, using marijuana at Columbia, might have been arrested had the NYPD been conducting the number of marijuana arrests then that it is now.”
A misdemeanor marijuana conviction could have been a life-changing event for Obama, interrupting his education, impairing his job prospects, and derailing his political career before it began. It would not have been fair, but it would have spared us the sorry spectacle of a president who champions a policy he once called “an utter failure” and who literally laughs at supporters whose objections to that doomed, disastrous crusade he once claimed to share.