Reefer Madness

Election Edition

Reefer Madness
Photo by John Anderson

Will the real Barack Obama please stand up?

Last fall, during a televised debate with the then-much-more-crowded field of Democratic presidential hopefuls, MSNBC's Tim Russert asked the assembled candidates which among them agreed with Sen. Chris Dodd that marijuana should be decriminalized. None jumped on that bandwagon. Even Barack Obama – who, famously, in his 1995 autobiography confessed to using dope and coke as a younger man ("I inhaled, frequently. That was the point," he has said) – raised his hand, albeit tentatively, as one who disagreed with Dodd.

It was a weird moment – not only because Obama has admitted to using pot (although with the standard political disclaimer that it wasn't something he was proud of; remember the kids and all that ya-di-da) but more so because while running for Senate in 2004, Obama told an audience at Northwestern University that he did in fact support marijuana decriminalization. "I think the War on Drugs has been an utter failure," he told students on Jan. 21, 2004. "I think we need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws. But I'm not somebody who believes in the legalization of marijuana. I do believe we need to rethink how we're operating in the drug wars – we're not doing a good job."

Now that's refreshing: a politician who not only admits he's smoked pot but also opines that our current drug laws might not be as great as the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy would have you think. As such, Obama's apparent turnaround last fall took many by surprise.

To be clear, decriminalization – which generally eliminates criminal penalties (that is, jail or prison time) for minor marijuana offenses (use and possession, generally up to a certain amount) – isn't exactly the most radical of propositions: To date, 12 states have decriminalized pot and not only those you might expect, like Califor­nia and Oregon, but also Mississippi, Nebraska, and Ohio. According to a 1993 Rand Corp. study, marijuana use is no more prevalent in decriminalized states than in those without relaxed criminal sanctions. And in a recent CNN/Time Warner poll, fully 76% of Americans favor decriminalization. So, Obama would find himself in good company. Indeed, when asked about his apparent change of heart, Obama's campaign told The Washington Times on Jan. 31 that their man had misunderstood the question: Obama has always favored decriminalization, the daily was told, and had "mistakenly" raised his hand during the MSNBC debate. (Hillary Clinton apparently disagrees – not only with Obama but with her husband, Bill, who said in 2000 that decriminalizing pot was a good idea; Clinton campaign spokesman Phil Singer told the Times that the New York senator opposes pot decriminalization.)

Still that wasn't the end of it; within the week, after the daily's report, Obama had flopped again: To be clear, the campaign has said, Obama favors neither decriminalization nor legalization.

And so it stands – at least for now. Of course, that doesn't exactly assuage pot-law reformers like Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Mari­jua­na Laws. "Obama may be the first major presidential candidate ever to have truly cut his teeth in grassroots advocacy, but when it comes to cannabis-law reform, Obama appears to be playing 'politically pragmatic,'" he said, "which is to say, politically expedient on an issue that should otherwise matter to him."

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