Why Is Barack Obama Afraid of Decriminalization?


Yesterday I noted that the New Hampshire House of Representatives has voted to decriminalize possession of up to a quarter ounce of marijuana. (You can read more about that bill at the website of the New Hampshire Coalition for Common Sense Marijuana Policy.) NORML notes that the Vermont Senate approved a similar bill last month, with a one-ounce limit. If those bills succeed, New Hampshire and Vermont would join the 12 states that already have made possessing small quantities of marijuana a noncriminal violation, typically punishable by a modest fine.

Of these states the most tolerant is Alaska, where the state Supreme Court in 1976 ruled that the state constitution's privacy clause (which says the "right of the people to privacy is recognized and shall not be infringed") bars arresting or punishing people for possessing small amounts of marijuana at home. Yesterday the Alaska Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case where the state is seeking to overturn that decision, defending a 2006 recriminalization law by arguing that marijuana is more dangerous than it used to be.

The Czech Republic, meanwhile, is codifying a policy of not prosecuting pot smokers, including those growing a few plants. According to the Drug War Chronicle, the law currently says possessing "more than a small amount of drugs" is a crime punishable by up to five years in prison. The revision will specify that anything up to 20 joints, a gram of hashish, or three plants counts as "a small amount," triggering a fine at worst.

In short, "decriminalization" in the sense of lenience toward marijuana users has been the policy in many jurisdictions for years, without any obvious negative repercussions. Furthermore, large majorities of Americans tell pollsters that pot smokers should pay a fine rather than go to jail. Is this policy really so controversial that Barack Obama had to back away from his support for it? Maybe he's just afraid of the word decriminalization, which is open to a variety of interpretations, ranging from tinkering with penalties to full-blown legalization. Is there some other, less scary term that could be used for a policy of going easy on pot smokers (and on drug users generally)?