White House responds on pot

Obama's drug czar concedes it's a "national conversation" but still won't commit on federal legalization

Published January 9, 2013 1:03PM (EST)

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

Nearly two months ago, after my fellow Coloradans voted to legalize marijuana in our state, I filed a simple White House petition that garnered headlines and enough signatures to mandate an official substantive response from the president's staff. The request in the petition, which you can read here, was not that the president support a new federal law imposing pot legalization on all states. Instead, I and eventually 46,000 other people asked the president to merely support new bipartisan congressional legislation to change federal law so that it formally permits states -- if they choose -- to end the war on pot within their borders.

Late last night, the White House finally decided to respond by deploying its drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, to make some serious news. The same drug czar who once declared that "legalization is not in my vocabulary nor is it in the president’s vocabulary" now concedes that America is "in the midst of a serious national conversation about marijuana."

For those pushing to end the Drug War, that declaration alone from a spokesman for the president of the United States is nothing short of historic -- and it represents the success of major political pressure. Indeed, as Tom Angell, chairman of the advocacy group Marijuana Majority, said in response to the White House's announcement: "It makes a difference when marijuana legalization gets more votes than your boss does in an important swing state."

However, even as that "serious national conversation" intensifies, there is bad news about where the president seems to be positioning himself in the discussion. That's because of what Kerlikowske had to say -- or not say -- about the specific question in the petition.

Rather than answer the petition's request that President Obama support the congressional legislation at hand, Kerlikowske only said "the Justice Department is reviewing the legalization initiatives passed in Colorado and Washington." He then points concerned citizens to the president's previous interview with ABC's Barbara Walters in which Obama said he does not support legalization of marijuana. But, tellingly, that interview never addresses whether the president supports legislation to give states, and not the federal government, explicit authority to legalize it on their own within their own state borders.

This part of the White House response to the petition can be interpreted in one of two ways -- each not encouraging. Either it is a wholesale refusal to respond to citizens' request or, arguably worse, it is an outright rejection of the petition's central request.

If you see the response as a non-response -- as a refusal to actually deal with the specific issue at hand -- then first and foremost, we are witnessing the administration make a total mockery out of the very petition system that the Obama White House cites as proof of its supposed populist appeal and grassroots cred. If this is what's going on, it would be difficult to overstate the arrogance inherent in setting high thresholds for voters to merely get a response from their government, and for that same government to then ignore those voters when they happen to exceed that threshold. Basically, this would be Washington's latest way of proudly -- almost cheerily -- giving Americans the big middle finger, expecting us to somehow not notice that we just got flipped off.

Just as important, though, is what would may be getting flipped off about. According to polls, somewhere between 51 percent and 68 percent of Americans believe states -- and not the feds -- should have marijuana enforcement authority.

Yet, in the wake of two states' overwhelming votes' to end the war on pot in their midst, the White House may be trying to entirely ignore this public uprising -- and not just by seemingly refusing to answer a petition about pending bipartisan legislation. A month before last night's announcement, the New York Times reported that the White House is "considering plans for legal action" against any states that assert the authority to end the war on marijuana in their midst. These "actions" include "su(ing) the states on the grounds that any effort to regulate marijuana is pre-empted by federal law."

Those preemption lawsuits, of course, would be impossible if Congress passed and Obama signed the very legislation on which the petition focuses. But maybe that's the real point here. Perhaps this isn't a non-response -- perhaps it is a definitive response against ending federal preemption and, thus, against the federal legislation in question.

Remember, the petition I filed asks the president to support states' right to choose (or not choose) to legalize marijuana. In response, the president's has opted to reiterate that he ultimately does not support legalization. One way to logically connect the dots is to assume that his reiterating such a position in response to this particular petition is an attempt to tell us that he does not support the federal legislation in question. After all, if he's asked whether he supports letting states legalize marijuana, and he responds by saying he doesn't support legalization, it stands to reason that he's trying to at once avoid taking an unpopular stand against state sovereignty but also get himself on record opposing the bill.

This, however, is too serious an issue for such parsing and prevarication. The war on marijuana is not merely about your right to smoke a joint -- it is about everything from wasteful deficit-expanding spending on prisons and police to inhumane incarceration policies to racist drug enforcement policies to a culture that effectively encourages law-abiding citizens to choose more toxic drugs (alcohol) over safer ones (marijuana).

The president -- who was once a serious marijuana user -- needs to better enunciate where he stands not just on the issue of legalization in general, but on the issue of whether states should have the right to make their own decisions about marijuana policy. Here's hoping he stands on the right side of that fight -- or at least clarifies where he stands so that an honest "national conversation" can continue.

By David Sirota

David Sirota is a senior writer for the International Business Times and the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover," "The Uprising" and "Back to Our Future." E-mail him at ds@davidsirota.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.

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