While looking forward on matters of international relations, the global economy, and health care, President Obama has decided that legalizing marijuana can be laughed off as a pothead conspiracy. Every President needs targets audiences can join in mocking. This proposal can't be slighted, however, and it won't be for too much longer - many policy and economic wonks are already evaluating it. President Obama may be intimidated by reactions to his revelations that he took drugs, but he is missing the boat on this issue.
At his virtual town hall meeting last Thursday, President Obama confronted the top-ranked question in several subject areas, the legalization of marijuana. He sloughed it off to the amusement of the select group in attendance: "I don't know what this says about the online audience." (Laughter) "No, I don't think this is a good strategy to grow our economy." (Applause)
None of the screens reflecting voter selections displayed mj legalization, but the issue ranked at the top of the voting on "green jobs," "financial stability," "jobs," "budget," and was a close second place in "health care." (Have you heard - a week after AG Eric Holder vowed to change the Bush Administration's policy towards medical marijuana, federal agents raided a San Francisco dispensary?)
A sample question for Obama was: "What are your plans for the failing 'War on Drugs', that's sucking money from tax payers and putting non-violent people in prison longer than the violent criminals?" Now those aren't joking issues. Literally from California to the New York Island, states are reconsidering their attitudes towards imprisoning drug users as the costs of this policy become unsustainable.
And the issue could easily have been placed at the top of several international hot spots as well - drugs are the cause of the crisis facing Mexico and our southern border. They are an important ingredient in the Afghanistan war. Certainly, the Obama administration is closely tracking how drugs impact our foreign policy in these and other areas around the globe, as has every prior administration since Nixon. Remember Nixon's 1969 Operation Intercept campaign to halt the flow of drugs from Mexico?
The domestic costs of the criminalization of drug use and the potential financial benefits from taxing and controlling it are certainly front burner issues. The financial implications of drug legalization will gather increasingly serious attention - beginning with the as yet quixotic proposal by California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano to legalize the sale of marijuana in that state. Even the Wall Street Journal took notice of that proposed law and Time magazine is taking it seriously.
But President Obama and his well-behaved cohorts fronting his town meeting simply snickered at the suggestion, and none of the questioners was there to follow up. We can wonder whether Obama's Drug Czar and Attorney General will studiously avoid confronting (as Bush Administration officials did) drug policy reformers like Ethan Nadelmann, whose presentation of the issue is harder to deflect.
Will Obama think differently about these matters several years down the road? More to the point, will he deal more seriously with changing our drug policies if he chances another town hall meeting? Something is changing in the United States, albeit slowly and partially - people are less likely to react to the idea of drug use with a knee-jerk, "Criminal, degenerate, psychopath - jail 'em." Perhaps all of the high profile substance abusers who have surfaced since Nixon have changed people's attitudes.
Some day - within the decade? - an important political leader will seriously propose - and legislators will consider - decriminalizing personal drug use. And that will be a greater seismic event than when Reagan spoke in front of the Berlin Wall urging its destruction - followed shortly by that reality.