Drug Policy

Barack Obama on Weed

A truth the candidate won't tell

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Lately, Barack Obama has been quoting John F. Kennedy: "The world is changing. The old ways will not do." For a few hours the other day, I was starting to think he really meant it.

On Thursday, The Washington Times reported that in 2004, as a candidate for the U.S. Senate, Obama came out for decriminalizing marijuana use. That usually means eliminating jail sentences and arrest records for anyone caught with a small amount for personal use, treating it more like a traffic offense than a violent crime. But in a show of hands at a debate last fall, he indicated that he opposed the idea.

When confronted on the issue by the Times, however, the senator defended his original ground. His campaign said he has "always" supported decriminalization.

It's a brave position, and therefore exceedingly rare among practicing politicians. Which may be why it didn't last. Before the day was over, the Obama campaign issued a statement saying he thinks "we are sending far too many first-time non-violent drug users to prison for very long periods of time" but "does not believe that we should treat offenses involving marijuana with a simple fine or just by confiscating the drug." Recently, he had told a New Hampshire newspaper, "I'm not in favor of decriminalization."

This episode reveals that as a candidate, Obama is more fond of bold rhetoric than bold policies. But it also proves the impossibility of talking sense on the subject of illicit drugs during a political campaign. That course of action would mean admitting the inadmissible: that the prohibition of cannabis has been cruel, wasteful and fraudulent.

Cruel because it leads to the arrest of nearly 700,000 people a year for mere possession of a substance that is comparatively benign. Wasteful because it expends billions of dollars in police, court and correctional resources that could be deployed against dangerous predators. Fraudulent because it hasn't solved anything: According to the federal government, nearly 100 million Americans have tried the stuff.

But in the political realm, a strangely disjointed view of drugs prevails. Past use is forgivable. Both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton admitted to smoking marijuana, as did Al Gore and John Kerry. Obama has admitted doing the same.

At the same time, no major party presidential nominee has advocated decriminalization (much less legalization) since Jimmy Carter did so in 1976. It would be considered political suicide. So we are now in a bizarre position: A candidate who spent his college days flouting our marijuana laws can be elected president, but an abstemious, button-downed candidate who proposes to change those laws has no hope.

Had we enforced our statutes more vigorously, of course, Bush, Clinton and the others would never have been elected anything, because they would be ex-convicts. Yet Bush, Clinton and the others were happy to put people behind bars for crimes they themselves committed.

One alternative to that approach is decriminalization, which is not exactly radical or untried. It's already the norm in 12 different states—not just California and New York, but Mississippi, Ohio and Nebraska. About one of every three Americans lives in a state or city where pot users typically don't go to jail.

Despite this lenient approach, Omaha and Cincinnati still would never be mistaken for Jamaica. One thing we know is that criminal penalties have little if any effect on the number of stoners. States that have decriminalized cannabis are largely indistinguishable from states that have not. A 1999 report by the National Academy of Sciences found "little evidence that decriminalization of marijuana use necessarily leads to a substantial increase in marijuana use." In 2003, Boston University economist Jeffrey Miron surveyed the available data from here and abroad and agreed: "Existing evidence provides no indication that marijuana decriminalization causes increased marijuana use."

This discovery should not be surprising. Cigarettes and beer are both legally available, but smoking and drinking have been declining for years. Freedom is not incompatible with enlightened self-restraint. In fact, it seems to foster it.

Politicians normally can't say such things. But near the end of his administration, Bill Clinton confided to Rolling Stone magazine that he thought marijuana should be decriminalized. Maybe eight years from now, Obama will do likewise.

COPYRIGHT 2008 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

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  1. He backed off? And here I thought he actually had some balls.

  2. Well presented. Here’s Obama’s response to question about medical marijuana.
    http://granitestaters.com/candidates/video_obama.html

    The responses of other candidates are http://granitestaters.com/candidates/index.html

  3. Decriminalization is bullshit. None of the benefits of legalization and all of the costs of prohibitions. Albeit the costs are not as great. Not throwing people in jail for possession ain’t nothing, but they’ll still send the SWAT team to break down your door if your neighbor spys that false aralia through your window.

    Decriminalization is just a straw man to amp up the Drug War when it “fails”.

  4. Had we enforced our statutes more vigorously, of course, Bush, Clinton and the others would never have been elected anything, because they would be ex-convicts. Yet Bush, Clinton and the others were happy to put people behind bars for crimes they themselves committed.

    Cowards. There is no other word that applies.

    Before the War on Drugs Sanity really got ramped up (1980s), if you got busted for drug possession in the Navy you went to Captain’s Mast. That is non-judicial punishment that left you without a criminal record. Typical punishment was reduction in rate, 1/2 a months pay for two months, 45 days restriction, 45 days extra duty (2 hours a day of menial tasks after the work day). It sounds like a real hammer, but remember, no criminal conviction! There are those who took a bust in the ’70s and rose to the senior enlisted ranks by not getting caught again. Now they give you a court-martial and a bad conduct discharge. That follows you your whole life.

    I lost an excellent sailor for popping positive on random urinalysis around ’89 or ’90. Single, First Class Petty Officer (E-6), weekend party, pretty girl, cocaine, and a Monday piss test. There was absolutely nothing I could do to keep him in or mitigate the discharge. I was proud to serve with the man, the country was lucky to have him, and it was all tossed away thanks to the War on Drugs Youth.

    There, but for the grace of god…

    Everybody running for President except Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich(sp?) want to continue that policy. Relating that story always puts me in a depressed mood.

    Fuck the drug war and all those who support it. I mean that with all my heart.

  5. J sub D indignantly wrote:

    Cowards. There is no other word that applies.

    Wrong. There are several other words that apply, namely: self-interested, realistic, and practical. But I suppose none of those facts please you, so rant on.

    Fuck the drug war and all those who support it. I mean that with all my heart.

    I’m with you 100%. Unfortunately, that sentiment won’t help things.

  6. self-interested, realistic, and practical.

    I’ll give you self interested. We can argue realistic. Pratical? Hah!

  7. The corner drug store sold pure cocaine and heroin for under a dollar until 1914 over the counter. Guess what? Civilization didn’t collapse because of it and it wouldn’t collapse now if we went back to that.

    It cracks me up when people say to me YOU WANT COCAINE SOLD AT CVS? OMG! As if thats never been done before.

  8. It might help matters if we truthfully named the “War On Drugs”. “War on Drugs” sounds like an attack on an inanimate object. We should rename it the “War on Drug Users” to reflect who really is the target of the attack.

    Politicians on the Left shy away from staking a pro-decriminalization position because Leftist always have to fight the perception that they are cultural libertines, willing to approve of and support any immediate feel good act regardless of the long term consequences.

    Decriminalization will most likely come from the Right. Only Nixon can go to China and only a political philosophy of self-restraint and personal responsibility can advocate letting people make their own mistakes.

  9. Once again, I wish someone would ask Obama if he thinks he is a criminal. Certainly in a moral sense, criminality can’t turn on the morally trivial fact that he didn’t get caught. Since he has now clearly stated that simply using marijuana should result in someone being labeled a criminal for life, with all that entails, it seems reasonable to inquire if that doesn’t indeed make him a criminal. To be as fair as possible, the other candidates should be pressed on that issue and asked if they consider Obama a criminal (not to mention they should all be pressed to disclose any of their own previous drug use). Perhaps it is unfair to pick on him because he was honest enough to admit his use, but it is a too good of an opportunity to push all the candidates to attempt to rationalize their hypocrisy. It would also be a great opportunity to make perhaps a few people think about that question.

  10. Shannon — I prefer the title, The War on the Laws of Supply and Demand. Captures the futility more precisely, yeah?

  11. I prefer the War on Politically Incorrect Drugs.

    Cocaine, Heroin, Marijuana, BAD.

    Adderall, OxyContin, Alcohol, GOOD.

  12. In 2003, Boston University economist Jeffrey Miron surveyed the available data from here and abroad and agreed: “Existing evidence provides no indication that marijuana decriminalization causes increased marijuana use.”

    It would seem to follow that there’s no indication that criminalization causes decreased marijuana use.

    Decriminalization will most likely come from the Right. Only Nixon can go to China and only a political philosophy of self-restraint and personal responsibility can advocate letting people make their own mistakes.

    Where on the Right do you find this philosophy? Certainly not the Religious (enforce the Ten Commandments) Right. Or the Right to Life Right. Or the Gays Are Deviants Right. Or the Family Values Right.

    The only difference between today’s U.S. Liberals and Conservatives is the list of acts they want to regulate, and recreational drugs are in the overlap between the two.

  13. It might help matters if we truthfully named the “War On Drugs”. “War on Drugs” sounds like an attack on an inanimate object. We should rename it the “War on Drug Users” to reflect who really is the target of the attack.

    That’s Great!!! In the War On Drug Users…

  14. Have you ever listened to Barrack Obama…on weeeeeed?

  15. I’m having trouble getting worked up about this. I’m a huge proponent of legalization, but it makes sense that Obama would moderate his tone on this issue to help him get elected. I don’t believe for a second that Obama actually thinks weed being illegal is a good thing. The problem is that a substantial chunk of the populace does think so, and in order to get elected, one must make concessions. As “the greatest generation” dies out, so will a high concentration of anti-drug douchebags.

    Things are only going to improve on the weed front as time passes. Some parts of the country are already very good about it, like where I am right now, nyc. I live literally next to a police precinct, and weed smoke billows out my second-floor apartment’s windows at least once a week, and the cops haven’t done anything. The law here is for possession of less than an ounce, it’s essentially a parking ticket. A small fine, but no court, no prison, and it doesn’t go on your record. So to Warren, who said “Decriminalization is bullshit. None of the benefits of legalization and all of the costs of prohibitions,” I call humbug, though legalization would obviously be better.

  16. Shrub was all about “I believe each state should be able to choose as they so choose…” re medicinal Cannabis; he certainly reneged on that, eh?

    And did-not-inhale Bubba was little better.

    When will they ever learn?

  17. J sub D countered:

    I’ll give you self interested. We can argue realistic. Pratical? Hah!

    I used the words realistic and practical were both in the sense of politics, as in, maintaining his electability. You and I have no quarrels about the realism and practicality of the War on (some) Drugs.

  18. He backed off? And here I thought he actually had some balls.

    Oh, I’m sorry, you actually thought that one, tiny shred of the War on Drugs was going to be rolled back.

    No, you see, this is how this works. We’re not going to slow the pace of marijuana criminalization while at the same time sharpening our legislative pens and setting our sights on tobacco and trans-fats.

    aint…gonna…happen.

  19. the problem with freedom in this country is that most of the voting public are stupid. 99 percent of my friends are against the war on drugs but my friends don’t encompass the majority of people politicians have to pander to, to get elected to any form of office. that’s why positions on certain issues are considered “political suicide”

  20. Things are only going to improve on the weed front as time passes.

    As long as politicians think it’s suicide to be against the war on drugs, the American public will never be exposed to the debate, and therefore will never become educated about the subject, which means it’ll only get worse.

  21. on a slightly humorous note, he was stoned at the SOTU last week. see here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5K4_3Vf3GK0

  22. “There are those who took a bust in the ’70s and rose to the senior enlisted ranks by not getting caught again. Now they give you a court-martial and a bad conduct discharge. That follows you your whole life.”

    My Section Chief got busted in the 70’s with about a half pound he got a courts martial, but no punishment and retired as an E-7 AFIK.

    “I lost an excellent sailor for popping positive on random urinalysis around ’89 or ’90. Single, First Class Petty Officer (E-6), weekend party, pretty girl, cocaine, and a Monday piss test. There was absolutely nothing I could do to keep him in or mitigate the discharge. I was proud to serve with the man, the country was lucky to have him, and it was all tossed away thanks to the War on Drugs Youth.”

    I was USAR ’79-83 and Active Army 84-86.

    -Airborne Qualified

    -Army Achievement Medal with Oak Leaf

    -NCOPD Ribbon with 1 Device(Top 20% of my PLDC class, distinguished honor grad nominee from my squad)

    -Sqaudron Soldier of the month Jul ’84 (3/3 ACR)

    -Numerous Letters of Commendation

    -290 out of 300 on my Promotion Board

    -Expert Marksman

    -Passed my SQT’s without attending AIT for my MOS (Field Artillery Surveyor before PADS and GPS)

    -Passed all Common Skills Tasks with 100%

    -Never fell out of a PT run.

    -270 or higher on all PT tests.

    -Got kicked out on drug testing (Cannabis) Chapter 9, but they wanted to give me a Chapter 14 (BCD) because I was pretty open about my cannabis use after the first bust and that didn’t sit well with my new battalion commander.

    /When I entered the army most of my friends were cannabis users and there wasn’t a problem until drug testing fucked everything up.

    //Got a Master of Science degree and own my own business.

  23. -Sqaudron = Squadron

  24. Nothing is more severe than a reformed anything…

  25. What’s left unspoken is that Clinton arrested RECORD numbers of potheads, but in general potheads thought Slick was ‘cool’ (he blew a sax, and Monica blew him, so how could he be bad?). This despite the fact that he jailed FAR more innocent potheads for smoking weed than Reagan or Bush1 before him…Logic-impaired is puttin’ it mildly…
    JMR

  26. Make It Legal!!!

  27. DO IT!!!!!!!!

    1. Honestly.. how can ciggarettes and alcohol be legal but weed shouldn’t be. There has never been a death from bud and there never will be. EVER. I smoke weed everyday of my life and I don’t feel like I’m gunna go out and kill someone. Pot should be legal no matter what idiot say. The government tricks you into thinking that it’s this horrible thing but it really isnt. Now don’t get me wrong drugs like cocaine and heroin should never be legalized. Those are chemical drugs and not the god given herb. I’ll forever b all for weed. Shrooms to fam haa

  28. i need a lot more of a solid agreement before i would see any of his statements as supportive. Obama or not, he is still a politician with vulnerabilities towards non-committal illusions of support or opposition towards whatever the audience wishes to hear in order to secure a vote. Online Colleges

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