Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Why President Obama Should Get Behind Weed

weedA recent poll shows that a clear majority of American voters support legal and regulated marijuana by a margin of 56 to 36. Other polls show similar results, but even weaker opposition. Further, some of President Obama's key constituencies favor legalized marijuana by even greater majorities: 69% of liberals favor legalization; 62% of younger voters favor legalization; and, 57% of moderates, independents and Democrats favor legalization. Only southerners, the elderly, and conservatives strongly oppose legalization. In Colorado both women and Latino voters supported legalization last Tuesday. Medical marijuana consistently enjoys even stronger support of up to 80% of voters.

Moreover, it appears that including ballot initiatives relating to marijuana enhances voter turnout, particularly among young voters. "In the three states with marijuana legalization initiatives on the ballot, Colorado, Oregon and Washington State, there was a significant surge in the voters age 18-29. In 2008 young people made up just 14 percent of the vote in Colorado but this year it was 20 percent. Even more incredibly, in Washington State the youth vote went from just 10 percent of the electorate last election to 22 percent this time." In Massachusetts, voters "turned out in droves" to approve a medical marijuana ballot initiative.

President Obama should immediately reverse his hardline stance on the War on Drugs and instead return the issue of marijuana to the states to determine democratically. According to Rolling Stone: "the Obama administration has quietly unleashed a multi­agency crackdown on medical cannabis that goes far beyond anything undertaken by George W. Bush." In 2010, President Obama renominated a Bush holdover to head the DEA. Ever since the administration has aggressively use a variety of federal sanctions to shutter medical marijuana dispensaries. Recently, the Feds sentenced a medicinal pot provider to 80 years in prison.

The War on Drugs is a dismal failure that disproportionately penalizes communities of color. Even though whites use marijuana at rates that exceed usage among Latinos and African Americans, people of color are arrested at rates that can only be termed outrageous. In Colorado, Latinos were arrested at 1.5 time the rate as whites and African Americans at 3 times the rate as whites. In California, minorities are arrested at up to 12 times the rate of whites. In New York City, the War on Drugs has become a War on Weed--waged primarily on minorities--as shown in the chart at right.

This war is an economic catastrophe. If weed were legal and taxed like alcohol or tobacco it would lead to total government savings of about $7 billion and another $7 billion in revenues.  If marijuana were the same size as the alcohol industry it would amount to $150 billion per annum--and that means jobs.

In terms of costs, even the government's own studies suggest that costs are low or zero, and certainly less than those associated with tobacco and alcohol use. Moreover, there is little evidence that making pot illegal reduces usage. In fact, in the Netherlands, where marijuana is legal, usage is a fraction of that in the US. Therefore, a policy of allowing states to determine whether marijuana should be legal, illegal, or somewhere in between could be costless.

President Obama holds the power to issue a New Emancipation Proclamation with respect to marijuana. As president he can direct the Attorney General to remove marijuana from the list of Schedule I narcotics (which includes drugs like heroin and LSD) under 21 U.S.C. §811. This would immediately pave the way for medicinal marijuana which is now legal in 20 states and the District of Columbia. He should also direct a multi-agency review to assure the federal government's policies accommodate state medical marijuana laws. Finally, he should mandate an in-depth study on whether the federal government needs to regulate marijuana at all, as opposed to leaving it up to the states.

There are around 50,000 Americans in prison for pot-related offenses. The American taxpayer pays over $30,000 per year per inmate to incarcerate these citizens. Countless others have been disenfranchised for marijuana offenses. It makes no sense to continue this prohibition economically, politically or morally.
President Obama and the Democrats generally need to end the War on Drugs, starting with medical marijuana.


  1. The statistics are shocking. Particularly those that show that whites smoke pot more than other races, but African Americans and Latinos are imprisoned far more often for this "crime." The War on Drugs has been an epic failure. President Obama must wake up on this front and take action!

  2. The ramifications of this are far reaching and most likely not realized fully. The resources spent on surveillance, arresting and incarcerating petty drug offenses (and I mean that literally and not legally)are an injustices in and of themselves. the stigma that follows a criminal record only serve to suppress individuals further, and it is certainly proven that we do not run a system of rehabilitation, but a system that punishes and disenfranchises people. The following three links not only illustrate the resources saved by the recent shift, but also the public consensus.