Inhale, President Obama

Could the president move public opinion on marijuana legalization like he did on gay marriage?

Published June 4, 2012 11:45AM (EDT)

Considering its complete harmlessness, it's odd that the prohibition against marijuana ever happened in the first place. It's weirder still that it's international in scope and that it has persisted essentially unchallenged for 80 years. Weirdest of all is that there is actually not a broad and deep consensus that prohibition is a stupid waste of resources, a driver of horrific and pointless violence, and a means by which the state disenfranchises and imprisons millions of otherwise innocent people.

Maybe, if you're young and liberal or libertarian-inclined or even slightly conservative, you believe that there is such a consensus and that only the cowardice of our politicians or various powerful pro-prison industrial state interest groups prevents the sensible majority from achieving the self-evidently just goal of ending marijuana prohibition. But it's far from clear that most Americans are actually anti-prohibition. The latest evidence isn't very promising: A minority of Californians -- 46 percent -- support legalization, according to an L.A. Times poll. Fifty percent oppose it. Only 55 percent of people in the Bay Area support legalization. The split falls on predictable lines. Democrats, Independents and young people favor legalization. Republicans and old people don't. (As they should: As we all know, frequent use of cannabis leads inexorably to dangerous experimentation with jazz music and other perversions.)

For many of the people who support it, it seems to be pretty soft support. What's worse: "Those against marijuana use were more adamant in their position, with 42 percent feeling 'strongly' about it compared with 33 percent [of the] 'for' proponents." That seems, initially, surprising -- no one seems to really want marijuana illegal, right? -- but maybe it shouldn't be. For your typical white liberal, marijuana is easy to get (especially in California!), and the chance of being imprisoned for casual use is negligible. So, it's very easy to believe that a sort of decriminalization has already happened.

As Lucy Steigerwald writes at Reason Magazine's Hit & Run: "It's still surprising that California cannot either legalize gay marriage or marijuana, two theoretically leftish causes that most libertarians can also get behind."

The comparison is apt: They're both issues that have recently seen national support rise to around 50 percent in polls, and they're both issues that have thus far failed every time they've been up for a referendum.

I'm guessing that a not insignificant number of people who oppose marijuana legalization are supporters of President Obama. I also assume that a (probably larger) number of people who are broadly sympathetic to marijuana legalization but not particularly energized by the issue would be more inclined to care about the issue if the president highlighted it. Would this be an issue in which the much derided bully pulpit could actually be used to sway public opinion enough to lead to actual reform?

I basically agree with "bully pulpit" skeptics: I think when the president takes a position on an issue that was not formerly particularly "partisan," it creates partisan opposition to his position. President Obama coming out in favor of drug legalization could cause Republicans -- a small number of whom have lately been sounding marginally more reasonable on the issue -- to fall back in love with the drug war. But if Obama's support for gay marriage led to the crumbling of apparently weak black opposition, as it appears to have done in Maryland, it would likely have a similar effect if he ever actually voiced support for the legalization of a harmless drug he enjoyed himself on many occasions with no adverse consequences.

The problem, obviously, is that we have no evidence that Obama actually supports legalization. Obama was for decriminalization, but not legalization, in 2004 -- and that is the only hint of "secret reasonableness" on the issue. It's much less of a wink-nudge than we got on gay marriage, with his promised "evolution." (To be cynical about it, there's no marijuana equivalent of the gay fundraising network.)

While he talked up decriminalization and (heavily regulated) medicinal marijuana before, now Obama's Justice Department rather zealously enforces prohibition. (Another gay marriage parallel: His administration stopped defending DOMA in court long before his evolution finished.)

Obama has thus far signaled that marijuana is not an important issue. It is a silly sideshow for Ron Paul freaks, basically, to be laughed about when the kids ask him serious questions on the subject. Meanwhile, marijuana possession arrests rise nearly every year. Thousands of people -- primarily young, black males -- are arrested and introduced to the criminal justice system in New York and other cities for the crime of possessing small amounts of a drug that the more affluent enjoy with few repercussions. (Some, like "reasonable Republican" David Frum, see that as a good thing -- it deters those with "the least social resources" from drug use, apparently.)

And of course, marijuana provides a substantial portion of the income of the cartels currently terrorizing Mexico. (No one knows how much, but estimates of the percentage of Mexican gang revenue derived from marijuana export range from 15 to as high as 60.) It's reductive and false to say legalizing marijuana would cripple the cartels, just as it's silly to claim that taxing weed is the secret to fixing California's finances, but legalization would mean that casual American users would no longer be actively financing murder when they simply wanted to get high. (Obviously if we really want to deprive the cartels of revenue, we'd legalize cocaine. But that one is ... a bit of a long shot.)

The president's "signalling" could work on other elites, too. Legalization would immediately cease being a "fringe issue" in the eyes of the mainstream press, and other major liberal and Democratic political figures presumably would feel more comfortable bucking the drug war status quo. (I bet Mayor Bloomberg would say he's always favored legalization, yet another reason he's simply too sensible and rational to ever be president.) I think the result might be similar to the gay marriage battle, where the compromise of civil unions (in this case, decriminalization) gave way surprisingly quickly to actual victories for marriage. Because "decriminalization," in this case, wouldn't solve the problem of where the weed is coming from and whom its sale is enriching. Then again, perhaps nothing would happen save that Republicans would tar the president as a drug-addled radical.

Unfortunately we probably won't find out soon, if ever. The president seems, constitutionally, to be extraordinarily cautious when it comes to advocating liberal causes, even ones that are actually supported by approximately half of the country. (To borrow a phrase, let me be clear: No one here is pretending that the president "secretly" supports some liberal fantasy proposal -- merely wishing he actually would support it.) So, I guess what we should hope for is another legalization referendum happening around an occasion when Vice President Biden is booked on a Sunday show.

By Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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Barack Obama Drugs Marijuana War On Drugs