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Marijuana Reform Is Part of the Progressive Agenda, So Why Are Obama's Drug Cops Already Making Pot Raids?

Pot-reform activists have swarmed Obama's Change.gov, and huge majorities voted for pot reform in election '08, but no change yet from Obama.
 
 
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This past August, House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., during a live interview with CNN, did something quite remarkable. She spoke candidly and openly about her support for marijuana-law reform. But rather than demanding her colleagues in Washington take the necessary steps to end the federal government's seven-decade war on weed, she instead called on the public to act.

"We have important work to do outside the Congress in order for us to have success inside the Congress." Pelosi said. "[W]e need peoples' help to be in touch with their members of Congress to say why this (marijuana law reform) should be the case."

As the saying goes, "Ask and ye shall receive."

In the past few months, the public has expressed its support for marijuana law reform in unprecedented numbers. The election of former pot smoker, Barack "I inhaled frequently; that was the point" Obama, coupled with a sagging economy, has stimulated tens of thousands of Americans to demand their government stop spending its limited state and federal law enforcement resources on efforts targeting, arresting and prosecuting marijuana smokers.

For example, in December the question: "Will (President Obama) consider legalizing marijuana so that the government can regulate it, tax it, put age limits on it and create millions of new jobs and create a billion dollar-industry right here in the U.S.?" beat over 7,300 public-policy issues to claim the top spot in Change.gov's inaugural "Open for Questions" poll. (Change.gov, now WhiteHouse.gov, was the official Web site of President Obama's transition team.)

The first-place finish was hardly a fluke. The public's demand to "legalize the medicinal and recreational use of marijuana" also finished first in a two-month-long Web poll hosted by the liberal-leaning social-networking Web site Change.org and Washington's Case Foundation -- finishing some 5,000 votes ahead of the next most popular idea.

More recently, 26,000 visitors cast their vote in a CNBC online poll asking, "Do you favor the decriminalization of marijuana use?" More than 97 percent of those who voted said yes.

Perhaps most impressively, in a follow-up poll conducted by the Obama administration -- commissioned under the guise of creating a Citizens' Briefing Book for the new president -- the public's call to "stop imprisoning responsible adult citizens" finished first out of 44,000 policy proposals. But that was far from the only marijuana-related question to resonate with the public. Amazingly, a separate question calling on the new administration to "stop using federal resources to undermine states' medicinal marijuana laws" finished in third place.

Critics of the recent poll results are quick to note that online polls are not scientific and that arguably more Americans are concerned about other pressing social issues -- such as rising unemployment, for instance -- than care about reforming the United States' pot policies. But those who interpret these results so superficially are missing the bigger political picture.

As the popularity of the marijuana issue in these polls indicates, there is a significant, vocal and identifiable minority of American society that wants to see an end to America's archaic and overly punitive marijuana laws. Politicians, particularly progressive politicians, would be well-advised to acknowledge this interest group and respond accordingly.

Further, a majority of the American public is ready and willing to engage in a serious and objective political debate regarding the merits of legalizing the use of cannabis by adults, even if their elected officials are not. One only has to log on to the thousands of public comments, both for and against, marijuana legalization on the message board of Change.gov and Change.org to see that Americans are pining for, if nothing else, an honest review of our nation's so-called war on drugs.

So is the new administration listening? Apparently, not yet.

In response to the Change.gov poll, the administration posted a curt, one-sentence response, "President Obama is not in favor of the legalization of marijuana." The reply, though disappointing to some, was hardly unexpected. In 2004, Obama voiced support for decriminalizing pot (a policy that replaces criminal sanctions with the imposition of fines only), but fell short of endorsing legalization. (Although as a candidate for president, Obama renounced his support for decriminalization.)

Less expected, however, were the actions of the Justice Department last week when U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials raided the office of a California medical marijuana provider, as well as two medical grow houses in Colorado. (The possession of marijuana for medical purposes is legal in both states, and nonprofit organizations may legally dispense marijuana to authorized patients under California law.)

The busts outraged many drug-law-reform advocates, who were quick to point out that the new president had pledged on the campaign trail not to use Justice Department resources to circumvent state medical marijuana laws. Many news outlets also were quick to voice criticism toward the new administration for continuing with the federal raids, noting that these aggressive actions possess little to no public support.

Of course, it is not yet known whether Obama directly authorized the DEA raids. (Both the DOJ and the DEA are staffed, in large part, by holdovers from the Bush regime.) That said, there's also no indication that anyone at DOJ or DEA has been admonished for their behavior either. Obama's silence on the issue so far may be telling. It may also be politically detrimental.

Rather than ignore the public's calls for drug-policy reform, the new administration ought to be embracing it. After all, many of the same voters that put Barack Obama in the White House also voted by wide margins in November to liberalize marijuana laws in two states -- Michigan and Massachusetts -- and in nearly a dozen municipalities nationwide.

In fact, historically, marijuana-law reform has been a proven winner at the polls. Voters in 10 states and the District of Columbia have approved ballot measures legalizing the medical use of marijuana. (By contrast, only once -- in South Dakota in 2006 -- have voters rejected such a measure.)

Municipal ordinances mandating law enforcement to make the prosecution of minor pot offenses its "lowest priority" have enjoyed similar success -- passing in more than a dozen cities across the country, including Denver, Seattle, Oakland, Calif., Santa Barbara, Calif., Missoula, Mont., Colombia, Mo., and Fayetteville, Ark.

These results shouldn't be surprising. According to a national poll commissioned by CNN and Time magazine, 80 percent of Americans support the physician-supervised use of cannabis, and some 3 out of 4 say that adults should be fined, but not jailed, for using pot recreationally.

In short, marijuana-law reform should no longer be viewed by legislators as a political liability. It isn't. Instead, for the new administration and for 111th Congress, it is a political opportunity. The sooner our federally elected leaders recognize this fact, the sooner we, and they, can begin to undo the damage caused by America's longest and costliest war, the so-called war on drugs.

Paul Armentano is the deputy director of NORML and the NORML Foundation. He is also the co-author of the forthcoming book Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People To Drink?, to be published in 2009 by Chelsea Green.
 
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