The president's Justice Department won't let Washington and Colorado smoke up in peace. Can we change his mind?
Barack Obama has pissed off the stoners again. He always does. In 2009 a question about marijuana legalization made him laugh, a hard to miss sign that he didn’t take the issue seriously. Worse than laughter has been his DEA, and its increasingly heavy-handed war on legal marijuana dispensaries. Now that recreational marijuana has been legalized in Colorado and Washington, his Department of Justice is weighing its options, and, reportedly, none of their options seem to be “just let people smoke their marijuana, because it’s harmless.”
Instead the feds are either looking to have a judge declare the state regulations invalid, or are out to browbeat states into recriminalizing the demon weed by withholding federal money. (A similar strategy got the drinking age raised to 21 in every state, though it required legislation.)
Andrew Sullivan is not thrilled. There is some talk of “giving them hell.”
Libertarians have been mocking the liberal Obama supporters dumb enough to think the president secretly supported legalization, but most of the liberals I know have always been aware that the president’s been awful on drug war issues. We just hoped he’d be persuadable, or susceptible to pressure.
In June, I urged Obama to come out in favor of ending marijuana prohibition, as he belatedly came around on gay marriage. I still think that if he did, it would aid the cause of legalization, and justice, immensely. I imagine Obama doesn’t think the drug war is winnable, because he’s not a stupid man. But that’s just what I imagine, and it’s his actions that matter. His actions have so far been quite annoying. The president says his administration made a decision not to arrest or prosecute users, but decided to crack down on “traffickers” — the ones who grow and sell the legal-in-the-state-but-not-in-the-country weed. That’s not a great argument — it’s not terribly fair to arrest people growing and selling domestic pot while not arresting people smoking pot sourced from violent Mexican cartels — but it’s an argument that’s pretty Obamaesque.
Arguably Obama is being entirely consistent with his liberalism in being such a dick about marijuana, because federal law does trump state law, and Tenth Amendment arguments to the contrary are usually wielded by extremist right-wingers. The arguments people use to claim that the feds shouldn’t act to block Colorado from licensing and taxing marijuana frequently resemble ones Tenthers use to say they should be able to opt out of Medicaid and the Clean Air Act.
I happen to support both the Clean Air Act and the legalization of marijuana, so I’d prefer that the Obama administration not enforce federal law in this instance. And Jacob Sullum points out that the Justice Department has never once tried to have medical marijuana laws overturned with preemption arguments, possibly because a state legalizing the possession and sale of a substance under state law doesn’t affect, and therefore contradict, the substance’s status under federal law. (I have a feeling, though, that there are a lot of courts and judges who’d happily buy the federal government’s anti-drug case, no matter how poorly argued, in the event the Department of Justice ever decided to attempt a preemption-based suit.)
Here’s what I know: The DEA is full of people who went to go work for the DEA, and the Justice Department is full of prosecutors. Professional drug warriors, shockingly, are drug warriors. The Pentagon, similarly, is staffed with a lot of people who like dropping bombs and firing missiles, and every postwar president has ended up doing quite a bit of both once in office, no matter what they said they’d do before they were elected. The American state’s brutal machinery of death and prosecution is difficult to slow or stop. But the Obama administration presided over the most deportations of undocumented immigrants ever, then said they’d stop deporting people eligible for the Dream Act. It’s not hard to imagine something similar happening with marijuana, but there we go imagining again.
As Sullivan says, we should be giving them hell. We should be bitching constantly and loudly. Unfortunately, a second-term president is far less dependent on his “base” than a candidate or a first-term president. He is responsive to Congress, and Congress is not really full of legalization advocates. But it should be, and filling it full of legalization advocates ought to be a goal. It’s silly to depend on presidents, especially when prohibition is based not on executive orders but on federal law.
If Obama is not persuadable, it should be every liberal’s job to ensure that the issue becomes a litmus test for the next candidate, and the one after that, as gay marriage has become. (We won’t see another anti-same sex marriage Democratic presidential candidate in our lifetimes, I promise you.) We should be making sure that the next generation of Democratic leaders is less awful on drug issues, and that means agitating at the local and state level. The money people — and money helped win legalization in Washington, just as money has funded so much of the marriage equality battle — should be convinced that the legalization fight is a good and just use of their money.
Let’s make his marijuana policy end up as Barack Obama’s DOMA, the thing he’ll most desperately wish he could take back.
More Related Stories
- Is the Environmental Defense Fund ruining environmentalism?
- Top 5 investigative videos of the week: "Winning" Afghanistan
- Jester clowns Westboro Baptist Church
- GOP: Party of crybabies
- Developers evict historic women's shelter to build luxury hotel
- Guantánamo prisoner on hunger strike cries for help on Twitter
- 3 possible solutions to international tax avoidance
- “I just want the U.S. to send my father home”
- Army weapons engineer tied to white nationalist organizations
- Ted Cruz against the world
- David Vitter's hypocritical, punitive, horrible new amendment
- Louie Gohmert: Women should be forced to carry nonviable pregnancies to term
- Could hackers destroy the U.S. power grid?
- Democrats may be even worse than Republicans at regulating Wall Street
- Eric Holder versus journalism
- A progressive defense of drones
- There's no substitute for government disaster relief
- Holder signed off on search warrant for reporter
- Mississippi could begin prosecuting women for miscarriages
- Mike Judge: "Bowling for Columbine" made me pro-gun
- Closing Gitmo is not enough
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11