Obama rightly decries the racist war on weed

     This photo shows marijuana plants flourishing under the lights at a grow house in Denver. President Barack Obama says he won't go after Washington state and Colorado for legalizing marijuana. Ed Andrieski/(AP Photo, file)

    This photo shows marijuana plants flourishing under the lights at a grow house in Denver. President Barack Obama says he won't go after Washington state and Colorado for legalizing marijuana. Ed Andrieski/(AP Photo, file)

    Maybe it’s just that President Obama feels free to say what he thinks because he doesn’t have to face the voters again. Or maybe his new remarks on the legalization of marijuana – “it’s important for it to go forward” – are simply in sync with the new national mood.

    Either way, attention should be paid. The highest-achieving member of Hawaii’s Choom Gang, interviewed at length in a newly-posted New Yorker opus, clearly has no interest in taking the lead on the legalization of weed – the cultural and economic revolution currently budding in Colorado and Washington State – but nor is he standing in the way. Because he knows the status quo is a disgrace, that law enforcement’s perpetual marijuana war has wasted untold billions and disproportionately targeted people of color.

    For that reason alone, Obama will let the state experiments play out with minimal D.C. interference, even though the federal criminal code still inexplicably lumps marijuana with heroin as a top-tier verboten drug. Obama is benign about Colorado and Washington, despite some personal qualms: “I’ve told my daughters (that smoking dope) is a bad idea, a waste of time, not very healthy,” and despite his belief that that legalization advocates are “overstating the case” for pot’s social benefits.

    But by now we know Obama to be a man of nuance, so even as he says that marijuana is “not very healthy,” he tells The New Yorker that “I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol,” and that in fact he thinks it’s less dangerous than alcohol “in terms of its impact on the individual consumer.”

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    All told, these friendly remarks about pot are unprecedented for a chief executive (although his official National Drug Control Strategy still says that the administration opposes legalization). Not long ago in America, a political leader who dared talk nice about weed would’ve been rhetorically tarred and feathered by the conservative morality cops, yet Obama’s remarks on pot-versus-booze have barely caused a ripple – because these days the right is deeply split on the perpetuation of prohibition. A lot of libertarian leave-us-alone conservatives now embrace legalization; heck, they’re even fine with paying the hefty consumer tax. It’s especially noteworthy that in Colorado’s 2012 referendum, roughly 117,000 people who voted against Obama voted for legal marijuana.

    So, politically, Obama has plenty of wiggle room on this issue. And here’s his biggest beef with prohibition: “Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do. 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….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.”

    Therefore, with respect to the new legal climate in Colorado and Washington, “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.”

    As Obama rightly recognized, this is a fairness issue. The war on drugs – mostly a war on weed – has long been racist in practice. According to a new nationwide study by the American Civil Liberties Union (a study that confirms many others), blacks and whites smoke pot at roughly the same rates – yet, in 2010, blacks were nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested on charges of pot possession. In some states, they were eight times more likely. Most of the busts were for small amounts. And in 2010 alone, the 50 states spent roughly $3.6 billion just to enforce the pot possession laws. (Imagine if those billions were instead spent on something more useful. Meanwhile, on the tax side, Colorado officials expect this year to collect roughly $70 million in pot-related revenue. The 15 percent levy on wholesale transactions will finance new school construction.)

    In recent weeks, there has been much moralistic clucking about marijuana, an incipient backlash against legalization. Most infamously, columnist David Brooks indulged his elitism when he argued that government should “subtly tip the scale to favor temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship. In those societies, government subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being stoned.” But Brooks didn’t even bother to address the racial disparity issue; from his privileged perch, the disproportionate arrests of black people don’t register. Far better, apparently, for law enforcement to continue to spend billions on the “temperate, prudent” pot war, while government “encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts…”

    Yeah, right. Go ask a black kid jailed for carrying joints how much he’s enjoying the arts.

    In other words, Obama is well within the mainstream in his recognition that the status quo is a loser. And when even a New Hampshire Republican lawmaker is sponsoring a legalization bill – “we are no longer slaves to our misguided past”- it’s clear that anything is possible.



    Now that the Pennsylvania Republican regime’s craven voter-ID law has been shot down in state court – last Friday, a judge ruled that the law requiring a photo failed to achieve its purported goal of combating voter fraud – it’s hilarious to hear the GOP chairman declare that his party still believes it’s important to “combat voter fraud.” Seriously, are these people so hard-wired to their robotic talking points that they can’t process factual reality?

    After all, the lawyers for the Pennsylvania Republican regime acknowledged on the eve of trial – in a signed document, no less – that there was no voter fraud to combat: “There have been no investigations and prosecutions of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania…The parties are not aware of any incidents of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania…(We) will not offer any evidence in this action that in-person voter fraud has in fact occurred in Pennsylvania…(We) will not offer any evidence or argument that in-person voter fraud is likely to occur in November in the absence of the Photo ID law.”


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1


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