News & Politics

Why is Obama So Chicken, Unwilling to Even Address the Question of Pot and the Failed Drug War?

Pot policy questions were front-and-center in the White House's "Your Interview With the President" YouTube campaign, but Obama refused to acknowledge them.

 “We need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws.”

Can you guess which 2012 presidential candidate said the above statement? You’d be forgiven for thinking Ron Paul, or even Gary Johnson, since both have publicly advocated for reforming our country’s drug laws. You’d be forgiven for guessing anyone but Barack Obama, based on his actions during the past few years, but it was. It may be hard to believe, but President Obama is the same person who once called for reforming our marijuana laws, and deemed the drug war an “utter failure” during his 2004 campaign for the US Senate. Despite previous calls for reform, on Monday night, when faced with over 70,000 individuals urging him to address the issue of marijuana prohibition, Obama's only response was his silence. NORML and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition posted two of the most popular questions submitted to the White House’s recent Q&A on YouTube, alongside hundreds of others on the topic of marijuana law reform, but Obama offered no response or acknowledgement.

This recent attempt at citizen engagement, entitled “Your Interview With the President,"  was launched to coincide with the State of the Union Address. The concept was simple. Anyone could submit a text or video question through the White House YouTube channel, before the public voted on them over the course of the week. The highest rated questions would be selected for Obama to address. On Tuesday, January 24th, NORML submitted a question of our own, which inquired:

“With over 850,000 Americans arrested in 2010, for marijuana charges alone, and tens of billions of tax dollars being spent locking up non-violent marijuana users, isn’t it time we regulate and tax marijuana?”

The question exploded in popularity and received more than 4,000 votes in the first several hours, making it the 2nd highest rated question. Much to our surprise, that evening the question was removed from the YouTube channel and flagged as “inappropriate.” In response, an upset contingent of citizens flooded the page with marijuana law reform questions. Initially, many of their inquiries were met with censorship as well, but by the end of the week it seemed the moderator had given up and most reform questions remained posted. When voting closed on January 28th, marijuana related questions accounted for 105 out of the top 160 questions and received more than 72,000 votes in total. Individual reposts of NORML’s question netted well over 20,000 combined. A video posted by Law Enforcement Against Prohibition came in second overall, and inquired:

"Mr. President, my name is Stephen Downing, and I'm a retired deputy chief of police from the Los Angeles Police Department. From my 20 years of experience I have come to see our country’s drug policies as a failure and a complete waste of criminal justice resources. According to the Gallup Poll, the number of Americans who support legalizing and regulating marijuana now outnumbers those who support continuing prohibition. What do you say to this growing voter constituency that wants more changes to drug policy than you have delivered in your first term?"

We waited with anticipation until last night when President Obama took to his webcam and began addressing the questions. After about an hour came and went with some unsubstantial discussion about jobs, a question from an internet comedian, talk of the Obama’s upcoming wedding anniversary, and the President offering to check out the resume of an attendee’s spouse, the “interview” ended, with not a single word spoken about marijuana prohibition. It seems they found silence to be more effective than censorship.

It is regrettable that since taking up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue it seems “hope and change” became “more of the same,” at least on the marijuana issue. Raids against medical marijuana programs have continued and intensified under the current administration, while the Department of Justice lodged threats of intervention at California when they even considered legalizing cannabis in 2010. The United States currently arrests over 800,000 Americans every year for marijuana charges, the majority of which are for possession alone, to the tune of billions of taxpayer dollars. The ongoing drug war continues to disproportionately affect communities of color, who are arrested in staggering numbers completely out of sync with their use rates. Under our unregulated system, children can currently access marijuana with greater ease than regulated products such as cigarettes or alcohol. Meanwhile, the legalization and regulation of cannabis has the potential to bring in large amounts of tax revenue and create a brand new, employment rich industry. All of these things taken into consideration make the president’s continual skirting of the issue all the more frustrating. 

"Inappropriate?" What is more appropriate to discuss at a time like this than fiscal responsibility and civil liberties? President Obama once pledged to have “science and the scientific process…inform and guide decisions” of his Administration, and many of us are still holding out hope he will finally follow through on that promise.

Throughout his presidency, he played off the social media and grassroots strategies that propelled his 2010 campaign. President Obama utilized modern communication tools such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube throughout his first term to engage with the American people. The programs varied from YouTube video town halls, to Twitter Q&As, to petition drives, but the general concept was always to solicit policy and reform ideas from the general public, and address them in a formal and intelligent way. Many saw these as perfect opportunities to raise the issue of marijuana prohibition, and as a platform for an otherwise neglected issue to be seriously addressed. In practice, it never seemed to go that way for marijuana reform advocates. Through each of the previous nine efforts of this nature, questions on ending the drug war and legalizing marijuana have finished at the top every time and have typically dwarfed any other issue in volume of responses. Each time the administration has either ridiculed the question, ignored it entirely, or given it a vapid response. In this regard, the latest snub is simply a continuation of the status quo.

It is immensely disappointing that, yet again, the administration has declined the opportunity to discuss the very serious issue of ending marijuana prohibition in this country. For the ninth time, the White House has solicited the American people for direct input on the issues they cared about, and then, when the resulting answers called overwhelmingly for marijuana law reform, President Obama ignored the will of the American. Over half of the country now supports regulating and taxing marijuana; we can only hope that during the general election the issue is addressed with the respect and urgency it demands. If things continue as they are, President Obama very well may earn the dubious honor of running to the right of his predecessor George W. Bush on the marijuana issue. 

President Obama once stated that marijuana legalization is an entirely “legitimate topic for debate.” The American people are clearly ready for that debate, Mr. President. When will you be?

Erik Altieri is NORML Communications Coordinator.