Drug War

Will Obama Pay a Political Price for His Medical Marijuana Crackdown?

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As the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles proudly proclaims that "all known marijuana stores in Santa Barbara County are now the subject of federal enforcement actions," one may wonder: Is this a winning political strategy for Barack Obama? Writing at The Huffington Post a few days ago, Chris Weigant said "it is a complete mystery why President Obama and his Justice Department chose, roughly halfway through his first term, to launch a crackdown on marijuana that goes further even than his Republican predecessor."

Well, it's not a complete mystery. It's plausible that Obama, embarrassed by the proliferation of medical marijuana dispensaries on his watch, worried about Republican accusations that he is "soft on drugs," a charge perenially hurled at Democrats, even when there is very little evidence to back it up. Given his comparatively candid discussion of his own drug use in his memoir Dreams From My Father, Obama might have thought himself especially vulnerable to such criticism. Hence he let the drug warriors in the Justice Department do what drug warriors do. Attorney General Eric Holder's ostensible underlings were never really on board with his promises of prosecutorial forbearance, so following through would have required an aggressive and conspicuous shift in policy. It was much easier to talk tolerance while practicing repression.

Will Obama pay a price for his broken promise to stop interfering with state policy in this area (not to mention his blatant dishonesty about that broken promise)? Weigant suggests that disappointed supporters will stay home on Election Day, but I'm not sure how big this "marijuana vote" is. When I interviewed Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access, for my October cover story about Obama's drug policies, she told me:

I don't think this originated from the Obama administration. I think [Obama is] being complacent, following what the U.S. attorneys want him to do, and I think it's really up to someone who cares about this issue to push back. Because if we don't, this is a really horrible precedent, and we've got to show the president that we're still paying attention to this issue….There is a real political risk here, and this has to be brought to the president's attention.

Maybe. But given the remarkable ability of Obama's supporters to rationalize his continuation of his predecessor's policies, this seems like wishful thinking to me.