Barack Obama on Weed

A truth the candidate won't tell


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.