When Pot Smokers Become Pot Prohibitionists

Cory Booker, Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, Barack Obama, and "pot hypocrisy"



In an upcoming CNN special about marijuana, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) urges his colleagues in Congress to "stop the pot hypocrisy." What is the nature of this hypocrisy? Booker elaborates:

We now have had three presidents that have admitted to smoking marijuana. People that are in public office all throughout the Senate have said, hey, I've smoked marijuana recreationally.

How much of a hypocrite do you have to be to say that I broke American laws using pot as a recreational thing [but] I'm not going to support this idea that as a medicine for severely sick people, that they [should] be able to access this drug?

It is not necessarily inconsistent for someone who smoked pot in high school or college to question marijuana's medical utility. It is not even necessarily inconsistent for such a person to support criminal punishment of cannabis consumption, assuming he views his youthful "experimentation" as a terrible, reckless mistake that can be deterred by the threat of penalties. What Booker means, I think, is that former pot smokers in Congress did not think consuming cannabis was a big deal back then and still do not think it is a big deal. They nevertheless support laws that criminalize cannabis consumers, even those who use the drug to relieve symptoms of debilitating illnesses. The hypocrisy lies in the contradiction between their private beliefs and their public positions, not in their current disapproval of something they did when they were younger.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)—who joined Booker in sponsoring the CARERS Act, which would legalize medical marijuana in states that allow it—presumably had something similar in mind when he charged former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush with hypocrisy after the fellow presidential contender admitted that "I drank alcohol and I smoked marijuana when I was at Andover," calling it "pretty common." Here is how Paul responded in an interview with The Hill:

You would think he'd have a little more understanding then….He was even opposed to medical marijuana. This is a guy who now admits he smoked marijuana, but he wants to put people in jail who do.

I think that's the real hypocrisy, is that people on our side, which include a lot of people who made mistakes growing up, admit their mistakes but now still want to put people in jail for that. Had he been caught at Andover, he'd have never been governor, he'd probably never have a chance to run for the presidency.

The point is not just that Jeb Bush would have been unhappy to be caught with pot as a teenager, or that the disciplinary and legal consequences could have derailed his political career before it began. It's that Bush still thinks such an outcome would have been unjust and therefore should concede it is equally unjust to treat current cannabis consumers like criminals, especially when they are patients using marijuana for medical purposes.

Which brings us to Barack Obama, who also appears in the CNN special. According to The Daily Caller's Jonah Bennett, Obama "states his full support of medical marijuana." But judging from the quote Bennett presents, that is not quite accurate. Here is how Obama responds when CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta asks whether he supports the CARERS Act:

You know, I think I'd have to take a look at the details. But I'm on record as saying that not only do I think carefully prescribed medical use of marijuana may in fact be appropriate and we should follow the science as opposed to ideology on this issue, but I'm also on record as saying that the more we treat some of these issues related to drug abuse from a public health model and not just from an incarceration model, the better off we're going to be.

In other words, Gupta asked whether Congress should make an exception to the federal ban on marijuana for people who grow, distribute, or possess the drug for medical use in compliance with state law, and Obama responded by calling for more research. He also acknowledged that cannabinoids have medical potential, which is something prohibitionists (including Republican drug czars) have been conceding for years. He did not express "full support for medical marijuana."

Does Obama believe medical marijuana users or the people who assist them should be arrested for violating federal law? I don't think he does, so why can't he just say that, even if he is not quite prepared to endorse Booker and Paul's bill? The cowardice is especially striking because medical marijuana is supported by a large majority of Americans and has been for at least a decade and a half

To his credit, Obama has been candid about his own youthful marijuana use, and he has talked about the very issue that Booker and Rand raised: pot smokers who grow up to be pot prohibitionists. Here is how Obama put it in his 2014 interview with The New Yorker:

"Middle-class kids don't get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do," he said. "And African-American kids and Latino kids are more likely to be poor and less likely to have the resources and the support to avoid unduly harsh penalties." But, he said, "we should not be locking up kids or individual users for long stretches of jail time when some of the folks who are writing those laws have probably done the same thing." Accordingly, he said of the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington that "it's important for it to go forward because it's important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished."

The implication seems clear: not just that cannabis consumers should not be locked up for "long stretches of jail time" (which almost never happens) but that they should not be treated like criminals at all, and that legalizing marijuana, as Colorado and Washington have done, is the logical way to achieve that goal. Why can't Obama simply say, as Jimmy Carter did way back in 1977, that smoking pot is not the sort of thing that should get you arrested? Forget the vague, mealy-mouthed rhetoric about adding the "public health model" to "the inarceration model," which is something that prohibitionists are happy to support. Just say: I am glad I never got busted, and cannabis consumers today should not have to worry about that. Until Obama manages to form those words or something like them, he will be guilty of double hypocrisy, embodying the same inconsistency he decries in others.