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Drug Reform: An Obama Rx to Reignite Youth Support?

Neal Peirce / Dec 17 2011

For Release Sunday, December 18, 2011
© 2011 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal Peirce“Dance with one that brought you” is the title of a well-known song. But the Urban Dictionary offers a deeper meaning: “the principle that someone should pay proper fealty to those who have gone out of their way to look after them.”

Barack Obama should pay attention. In 2008, young voters were enthused and turned out for him by the millions.

But now? The campus/youth enthusiasm factor has declined sharply. The deficiency seriously imperils Obama’s reelection effort.

There’s one issue, though, that might reignite youthful enthusiasm. That issue is marijuana — partly its medical use, but especially Americans’ right to recreational use free of potential arrest and possible prison time.

Today’s grim reality is that police continue to arrest youth for marijuana possession by the hundreds of thousands. But each arrest is a red flag of danger, threatening life prospects for a young man or woman suddenly saddled with a permanent “drug arrest” record that’s easily located by employers, landlords, schools, credit agencies and banks.

Small wonder then that 62 percent of young Americans (ages 18 to 29) now favor legalizing marijuana, as the Gallup Poll reported this October.

And it’s not just youth these days. Gallup this year found 50 percent nationwide support for legalizing marijuana use — the most ever, up from a measly 12 percent in 1969 to 30 percent in 2000 and 40 percent in 2009.

A ballot measure to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana received 46.5 percent of the vote in California last year. Parallel measures are likely to be on the 2012 ballots in Colorado and Washington. Odd political bedfellows — Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass) and Ron Paul (R-Texas) — recently introduced a legalization bill and now have 20 cosponsors. Paul even gets applause advocating legalization in Republican presidential debates.

But what about President Obama? In 2004 he endorsed marijuana decriminalization. He was candid about his early pot use and in 2006 told a group of magazine editors: “When I was a kid, I inhaled, frequently.” By his run for president in 2008, he was slipping away from decriminalization but at least talked of a “public health” approach, emphasizing drug treatment instead of prison, giving drug reform advocates hope for a new day in national policy.

But Obama as president has been a clear disappointment to reform forces. In White House-initiated electronic town halls, the respondents — who are heavily weighted to original Obama supporters — have repeatedly put marijuana at the top of their issue lists. But the White House has either laughed off or provided dismissive retorts.

Obama’s Drug Policy Office claims the drug war is over, replaced by a focus on shrinking demand, “innovative, compassionate and evidence-based drug policies”. But Obama has not once singled out marijuana — a substance arguably far less harmful to the human body than alcohol — for special consideration. Nor has he spoken to the harm to youth caused by 800,000 yearly arrests. Or moved to stem the billions of dollars a year still being spent on marijuana-related arrests.

He reappointed, in fact, a Drug Enforcement Administration head, Michele Leonhart, who has refused repeated requests to remove marijuana from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, a category supposedly reserved for drugs with “a high potential for abuse” and “no currently accepted medical use.” The refusal has multiple ill effects — including making it much harder to test the initial indications that marijuana offers powerful relief for our ex-warriors suffering severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

This is clearly not the “change” Obama’s enthusiastic supporters of 2008 expected. And it’s deeply ironic. Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance notes that if local police departments had been enforcing marijuana laws as harshly in the early 1980s as many do today, “there’s a good chance a young Columbia student named Barack Obama could have been picked up — and not be in the White House today.”

Nadelmann suggests that both the White House Drug Office and the Justice Department enforcement divisions have been “coopted” by holdover appointees deeply invested in anti-marijuana rhetoric and “let’s just bust them” drug enforcement.

Facing the 2012 election, Obama’s not likely to advocate, suddenly, marijuana decriminalization. But he could announce it’s time for a serious national dialogue on the issue, to be a hallmark of his second term. He could express his dismay that 800,000 people, mostly young (and heavily black and Hispanic), are being arrested each year for marijuana possession — even as 50 percent of Americans favor legalization. He could focus on the massive costs of enforcement, the deep social costs of imprisonment. Let all America, youth included, join in the debate, he could urge.

A new openness to marijuana reform could help to reignite, on campuses and among high numbers of young people, the hope for “change” that really means something. Perhaps even prospects for the president’s own reelection.

Neal Peirce’s e-mail is

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  1. Posted December 17, 2011 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    Great piece. It’ll be interesting to see where this debate goes in the coming years. I’m pretty sure we’ll look back on current drug policy much like we look back on the years of prohibition.

  2. Posted December 17, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    The time seems to be ripe for this discussion, but it will take someone far more politically secure than Barack Obama in 2012 to lead it.

  3. Posted December 17, 2011 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    Love your optimistic tone. After 6 years in DC, I am more realistic/pessimistic. Recall Mr. I Did Not Inhale stated after the 2000 election –he should have pushed for legalization of MJ. I would expect Obama to do the same in the fall of 2016.

    To be most accurate, the Frank/Paul does not legalize marijuana. It simply mimics the 21st Amendment & returns to the States the power to choose their own path on the green plant. Republicans who scream “Let Texas Run Texas” have run away from this 10th amendment inspired approach. The Cartels must love Lamar Smith and company.

  4. David Priver
    Posted December 17, 2011 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    Of course Marijuana should be legalized. Only a fool would think otherwise, with, of course, the exception of those who make a living from law enforcement and incarceration. They will fight this with all their strength. How frightening it must seem to them to have to devote their attention to actual criminals.

  5. tom e bowers
    Posted December 18, 2011 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    Like most social controversies, scientific findings need to be seriously considered.

  6. Posted December 18, 2011 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    David, my colleagues are NOT afraid to chase and arrest bad guys, even if it means our injury or death.

    The LE lobbyists here in DC are simply guarding (w/ all their might = political blackmail) the money stream that prohibition provides. MJ enforcement alone = 13 billion + 2 more in civil asset forfeiture.

    A less important reason to maintain MJ prohibition is emotional. We have all been to the funerals of officers who died on drug raids. Many officers don’t want to face the reality these brothers died for nothing.