A Blue-Ribbon Panel, If We're Lucky


A couple of weeks ago, the Obama-Biden transition team's website solicited policy questions from the public. Over two days, the site "processed over 600,000 votes from more than 10,000 people on more than 7,300 questions," and this was the top question:

Will you consider legalizing marijuana so that the government can regulate it, tax it, put age limits on it, and create millions of new jobs and create a billion dollar industry right here in the U.S.?

Obama's terse answer:

President-elect Obama is not in favor of the legalization of marijuana.

Not even the most optimistic reformer would have expected Obama to endorse legalization, or even to say that pot smokers should not be arrested. But it's noteworthy that he did not take the opportunity to reiterate his promise to call off the DEA's medical marijuana raids or his opposition to imprisoning first-time, nonviolent drug offenders. He evidently felt he could not afford to throw even the tiniest bone to critics of the war on drugs.

Despite Obama's discouraging response, and despite the prominence of unreconstructed drug warriors on his team, Esquire columnist John Richardson seems pretty optimistic about the prospects for reform under the new administration. I find his evidence unpersuasive. I'm not impressed by the fact that the billionaires George Soros, Peter Lewis, and John Sperling, who are major supporters of drug policy reform, backed Obama (and Democrats generally). They support the Democrats for various reasons, and I doubt Obama's drug policy proclivities were foremost in their minds.

The fact that Marsha Rosenbaum left her job as director of the Drug Policy Alliance's West Coast office to raise money for Obama is more encouraging, but it sounds like she's been getting a cold shoulder from the transition team when she tries to find out whom Obama might pick for drug czar. All the contenders Richardson mentions are hard-line prohibitionists. "He [Obama] said at one point that he's not going to use any political capital with this [drug policy reform]," Rosenbaum tells Richardson. "That's a concern." You think? Rosenbaum's big hope for the Obama administration is pretty depressing:

I'm hoping that what the administration will do is something this country hasn't done since 1971, which is to undertake a presidential commission to look at drug policy, convene a group of blue-ribbon experts to look at the issue, and make recommendations.

The last time around, the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, a.k.a. the Shafer Commission, offered a set of enlightened suggestions, among them that possession and nonprofit transfers of marijuana in small quanitities for personal use should no longer be treated as a crime. The Nixon administration ignored the commission's report. Last year a record 873,000 Americans were arrested for marijuana offenses, the vast majority for simple possession.

Shortly after the election, I suggested that drug policy reformers should brace themselves for disappointment.