Obama’s drug czar has said “legalization” isn’t in his vocabulary. Here’s why it should be.
By Steven Wishnia, AlterNet. Posted October 29, 2009.
More members of Congress have publicly questioned whether President Barack Obama was born in Hawaii than have endorsed legalizing marijuana.
This comes despite the birth announcements printed in the Honolulu Advertiser in August 1961 and marijuana’s deep inroads into the cultural mainstream.
Almost every voter under 65 in this country has either smoked cannabis or grew up with people who did. Among its erstwhile users are the last three presidents, one Supreme Court justice and the mayor of the nation’s largest city. The pot leaf’s image pervades popular culture, from Bob Marley T-shirts to billboards for Showtime’s Weeds.
So why is actually legalizing it still considered a fringe issue? Why haven’t more politicians — especially the ones who inhaled — come out and said, “Prohibition is absurd and criminal. Let’s treat cannabis like alcohol”?
Allen St. Pierre, head of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, blames the hypocrisy of the “baby boomer elite.” There are many people in Washington’s political and media circles “who know the right end of a joint to light, but are too embarrassed to admit their knowledge,” he says. There are members of Congress, he adds, who will greet him at a party with “Allen, got any weed?” but are afraid to go out on a limb for legalization.
Only two current members of Congress have openly advocated ending cannabis prohibition: Reps. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, and Ron Paul, R-Texas.
Even in a Congress inhabited by Republicans Tom “Lesbians Are Terrorizing Our High Schools” Coburn of Oklahoma and Michelle “Carbon Dioxide Is Natural, It Is Not Harmful” Bachmann of Minnesota, the left-liberal Kucinich and the libertarian-conservative Paul might be the two most widely derided as kooks.
A handful of others, such as Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., have given some indications that they would support legalization. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., has sponsored a bill to end federal penalties for possession of less than 100 grams, but has not explicitly endorsed making marijuana as legal as alcohol.
In contrast, Salon in July identified 17 members of Congress as “birther” sympathizers who had either openly questioned Obama’s birth, co-sponsored a bill on the issue or refused to answer yes when asked if they believed he was a natural-born citizen. The 17 included Sens. James Inhofe, R-Okla., and Richard Shelby, R-Ala.
St. Pierre particularly resents the way the media treat the issue as a joke, in which almost any headline has to include a bad pun on “doobie,” “high” or “mellow.”
It’s deadly serious when more than 800,000 people a year are arrested for it, he argues. Obama’s “chuckle,” he says, was emblematic. When legalizing marijuana was the top issue cited by visitors to Obama’s transition Web site, the president dismissed it with a joke implying that there must be a lot of stoned people on the Internet.
“It’s still an issue people are giggling about, not taking seriously,” says Noelle Davis, former head of Texans for Medical Marijuana.
State legislators who have sponsored marijuana-related bills say that the two biggest obstacles are fear and cultural stereotypes.
“Elected officials are largely very concerned about being labeled ‘soft on drugs,'” says New York State Assemblyman Richard Gottfried. Gottfried, a Manhattan Democrat who sponsored the state’s 1977 decriminalization law, has introduced several bills to legalize medical marijuana.
Polls have shown medical marijuana to have the support of 70 to 80 percent of New Yorkers, he says, but “many legislators are afraid to touch it.”
Washington State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles says that many legislators, particularly in the state’s more conservative rural areas, “buy into the cultural stereotypes about marijuana,” such as the idea that it’s a gateway to harder drugs.
The Seattle Democrat, who is sponsoring a bill to reduce the penalty for less than 40 grams of pot from a misdemeanor to a civil infraction, says that the state’s prosecutors’ support for legalizing medical marijuana gave conservatives political cover to vote for it but that law enforcement has largely opposed her decriminalization bill.
One reason for the lack of urgent political pressure, says Deborah Small of Break the Chains, is that the people most likely to get busted for pot are the ones who “don’t have a political voice” — young people of color from poor neighborhoods. In Atlanta, Baltimore and New York, which have among the highest marijuana-arrest rates in the nation, three-fourths of those popped are black or Latino and under 25, she points out. Adults and more affluent youths are largely safe from arrest, she adds.
Frontlines of the Debate
California is the one state where legalization is legitimately on the agenda. “Obama might have dismissed it, but we’re having the most serious conversation in 35 years,” says Quintin Mecke, spokesman for Assemblyman Tom Ammiano. Ammiano, a San Francisco Democrat, is sponsoring a bill that would legalize marijuana in California. It would let people grow up to 10 plants for their own use and license commercial cultivation and sales, with a smoking age of 21 and a $50-an-ounce tax.
Hearings on the bill are scheduled for January. It would obviously conflict with federal law, but Mecke says, “the intent is to provoke a states’ rights conversation A lot of folks are looking to California to push that issue.”
Several factors make legalization politically possible in California, Mecke explains. First, it has had legally regulated medical marijuana for 13 years, and people have “seen that the sky did not fall. California may be in a fiscal crisis, but it’s certainly not due to marijuana.” Taxes and fees on cannabis could raise $1.4 billion in revenue for the cash-strapped state, the state Board of Equalization estimates. In addition, marijuana cultivation is an integral part of the local economy in many areas, especially the rural north.
“We’re not expecting this to happen overnight,” Mecke says. “But looking at the poll numbers, it will happen.”
A Gallup poll conducted in early October backs that prediction. It found 44 percent of the people surveyed supporting legal marijuana, with 54 percent against. In contrast, previous surveys showed Americans rejecting legalization 73 percent to 23 percent in 1985 and 64 percent to 31 percent in 2000.
An overwhelming majority of liberals supported it, as did more than half of Westerners, Democrats and people under 50. Opposition was strongest among Republicans, conservatives and people over 65, but even in those groups, more than a quarter backed legalization.
“Public mores on legalization of marijuana have been changing this decade and are now at their most tolerant in at least 40 years,” the Gallup organization stated. “If public support were to continue growing at a rate of 1 to 2 percentage points per year, as it has since 2000, the majority of Americans could favor legalization of the drug in as little as four years.”
Disconnect Between the Country and Its Capital
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