I suppose President Obama deserves some credit for addressing national marijuana policy during his recent online town hall. But instead of seriously answering the thousands of questions submitted by Americans on overhauling our failed drug laws, he joked about the issue. In doing so, Obama passed on an unparalleled opportunity to offer food for thought on how the White House might be willing to rethink our disastrous marijuana policy. “I don’t know what this says about the online audience,” Obama joked. “This was a fairly popular question; we want to make sure that it was answered. The answer is no, I don’t think that’s a good strategy to grow our economy.”
Before the president’s “Open for Questions” website closed, more than 2,100 marijuana policy questions had been submitted, according to The Times’ March 27 article, “Obama connects from on high, online.” Obama’s audience, it turned out, felt that taxing and regulating marijuana was a good way to improve the economy. And understandably, Obama’s refusal to seriously discuss marijuana policy sparked plenty of resentment, as reported on The Times’ Top of the Ticket blog.
This was not the first time that Obama has heard from the public about marijuana. Throughout his campaign and transition to power, he had been pressed to endorse an overhaul of the war on drugs and federal marijuana policy. In fact, Obama’s transition team held similar online forums in which marijuana policy was among the top issues in the questions submitted.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs dismissed the popularity of the marijuana questions as a product of some kind of manipulation, claiming, “This is not the first time that an interest group gets on a website and votes many times for their question to be answered.” But in this case, the interest group is the American people. After all, it is the American people who are locked away at a higher rate than any other people on Earth. More than one out of every 100 American adults are behind bars at any given moment, and the United States’ incarceration rate is five times the world’s.
America’s appetite for incarcerating people for minor drug offenses has grossly overfed our bloated criminal justice system. An estimated 500,000 people are currently locked up in jails and prisons across the nation for drug offenses. Almost 48% of all drug arrests nationwide are for marijuana. In 2007 alone, more than 775,000 Americans entered the criminal justice system after an arrest for marijuana possession. It is in the American public’s interest that Obama take advantage of growing recognition among policymakers that our marijuana laws threaten public safety and welfare and be an important part of this debate.
The timing could not be more opportune for Obama. The escalating battle between the Mexican government and drug cartels has killed more than 7,000 Mexicans and is spilling into the United States. Mexican drug cartels have been implicated in carrying out numerous kidnappings in Phoenix; the Obama administration estimates they have set up shop in at least 230 U.S. cities. The situation provoked Arizona Atty. Gen. Terry Goddard to call for “at least a rational discussion as to what our country can do to take the profit out of [marijuana].” Goddard testified to a Senate committee last month that marijuana trafficking fuels 65% to 70% of the drug violence in Mexico.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stepped out on a limb when she acknowledged last month that “our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade” and that the U.S.-led war on drugs “has not worked.” Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) last month introduced bipartisan legislation that would create a commission to thoroughly examine the entire criminal justice system with a goal of understanding why we are “putting the wrong people in prison.”
The debate is not confined within our borders. In February, a commission led by three former Latin American presidents acknowledged that open dialogue about alternatives to the war on drugs has “become taboo, which inhibits public debate.” The commission urged policymakers to spark public debate on the decriminalization of marijuana and other measures.
Although marijuana is certainly not the most pressing issue for Obama, this is the right time for the president to engage lawmakers and the public on our destructive marijuana policy. A concerted effort by Obama to openly and honestly discuss alternatives to marijuana prohibition would undoubtedly pulverize the myth that Americans aren’t ready for reform. Perhaps Obama could start the conversation by explaining why he supported decriminalizing marijuana in 2004, when he first ran for the U.S. Senate.
Grant Smith is a legislative associate at the Drug Policy Alliance.