Obama's pot problem

Will the president's tough stance on marijuana cost him the crucial swing state of Colorado?

Published July 19, 2012 3:49PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Mark Leffingwell)
(Reuters/Mark Leffingwell)

President Barack Obama has disappointed drug-reform advocates across the country since taking office as president, and nowhere do they feel more betrayed than in Colorado.

After holding the party convention in Denver and handily carrying this traditionally Republican state in 2008, Obama could be jeopardizing his reelection bid with a dismissive and even hostile approach to marijuana reform, a top issue for tens of thousands of local residents, including many of the activists who powered his last campaign.

Obama inspired hope with early signals on relaxing drug policy, including the October 2009 “Ogden memo” that said the U.S. would not prosecute in states that allow medical marijuana. In the past two years, however, the feds have targeted medical marijuana facilities with a record number of raids, putting Obama on course to surpass the previous high set by George W. Bush. In Colorado alone, 40 dispensaries -- all in compliance with state and local law -- have already been shut down this year.

The surprising about-face has inspired former supporters in Colorado to try to legalize the drug outright. They managed to get a proposition to that effect on the ballot this November, and while some are (not unreasonably) teasing the possibility that the initiative, Amendment 64, might help the president by bringing a younger, more liberal electorate out to the polls, there are also warning signs that many of these same voters won’t pull the lever for Obama in a crucial swing state.

“The element that nobody’s really talking about is what I call the Gary Johnson effect,” says Denver Democratic political consultant Rick Ridder.

Johnson, the former Republican governor of New Mexico running for president on the Libertarian ticket, has begun holding press conferences from medical marijuana dispensaries and assailing Obama for waging the war on drugs. When combined with the steady drip of news about the latest massive DEA raids on what many local Democrats consider legitimate small-business owners, his presence in Colorado is poised to cause some headaches for the White House as campaign season heats up.

“Obama’s got a bloody nose all over this,” Johnson told me in an interview. “There’s a huge crowd out there that we should be able to appeal to.”

Polls show the president with a small but stable advantage in Colorado over Republican nominee Mitt Romney, but local political observers say his advisors are kidding themselves if they think they have much breathing room, and that it will be a much tighter spread than in 2008, when Obama won by a 9-point margin.

“Obama on his best day is at 45 or 47 percent out here,” says longtime Colorado pollster Floyd Ciruli. He thinks the marijuana initiative, support for which has ranged from 46 to 61 percent in polls (depending on how the question is asked), may well do better than the president in November and that Democrats “can’t take that vote for granted.”

And conversations with a wide range of local activists and political insiders suggest it’s not just votes Obama risks hemorrhaging with his regressive pot stance, but campaign donations and volunteers as well.

“I volunteered for his campaign, primarily because he said he was going to respect state marijuana laws,” says Josh Kappel, a Denver attorney who works at Sensible Colorado, a marijuana reform group at the forefront of the legalization effort. He’s yet to decide whether to vote for or volunteer for the president again, waiting to gauge the administration’s actions between now and Election Day. Talk of Gary Johnson is in the air, he says.

Wanda James, a Democratic fundraiser who bundled $100,000 for Obama’s 2008 campaign while serving on his national finance committee, runs an edible marijuana business in the state. She is so outraged at the White House that she “won’t raise a dime” for his reelection.

“There’s a number of major donors that have felt that way -- people who’ve given over a million dollars,” she told me.

James, who briefly helmed Rep. Jared Polis’ primary campaign in 2008, urged caution against what she acknowledged was a growing level of support for the third-party candidate in response to the Obama administration’s aggression.

“I think a lot of people are trying to support Gary Johnson, but it’s the wrong move right now,” she said. “We’ll be cutting off our nose to spite our face if we allow Romney to win this election, because it would be the end of the marijuana industry. At least under Barack Obama there is some pretense for the industry to exist.”

Johnson registered at 7 percent support in a recent Public Policy Polling survey of the state. In that poll, slightly more Johnson voters would back Romney rather than Obama were they forced to choose in a two-way race.

“I’m not claiming I have the answer [to corralling the pro-pot vote],” Johnson concedes. “Believe me, we are trying to do everything we can to make young people understand: The only way you vote for Obama if your issue is drug reform is the notion that in his second term as opposed to his first, he’s going to do the right thing. I’ve heard that argument many times by many politicians.”

Whether it helps Obama or hurts him, the pot issue certainly won’t play to Romney’s advantage in any direct sense. The guy is the archetypal narc, a Mormon who harangued a neighbor for smoking on the beach outside his mansion in San Diego and impersonated a police officer more than once as a young man, playing pranks on his friends by pulling them over with a siren mounted on his car.

“People who turn out for Amendment 64 are very unlikely to pull the lever for Romney,” says Aaron Houston, executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. “He used to dress up as a cop!”

But Houston, a Colorado native and former Democratic Party operative in this libertarian-leaning state, says Johnson’s candidacy represents “a very real danger for Obama” in that it is poised to siphon votes off at the margins, potentially making it easier for Romney to inch his way toward plurality support.

“He’s going to have to be very careful that his Department of Justice doesn’t threaten the voters of Colorado that they’ll have U.S. attorneys in federal court trying to undo the will of the voters [if the ballot initiative passes],” he says. “If he does, it could be fatal for his chances of reelection, because one thing Coloradans really don’t like is the federal government telling them what to do.”

If he fails to budge on pot between now and Election Day, Obama will effectively be wagering that Willard Mitt Romney is so terrifying to the pro-pot community that its voters will choose the devil they know over the one they don’t.

By Matt Taylor

Matt Taylor is a Brooklyn-based writer whose political reporting has appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, The New Republic, The Atlantic, NYMag.com, Capital New York, and VICE, among other publications. You can follow him on Twitter at @matthewt_ny.

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Barack Obama Colorado Marijuana