I would shrug and say "So what?" to the latest details from President Barack Obama's pot-smoking past, except for one thing: He stirred so much hope as a candidate for sensible marijuana policy reforms but, as president, has delivered so little change.
David Maraniss brings all that back to mind with his forthcoming book, "Barack Obama: The Story," which has been leaking like a sieve to major media in advance of its publication. Published accounts of Obama's days at Punahou, the private Hawaiian prep school that he attended in the 1970s, make the future president sound like a classic stoner.
"When a joint was making the rounds," Maraniss writes, the young Obama "often elbowed his way in, out of turn, shouted 'Intercepted!' and took an extra hit." Whoa, dude!
As Barry Obama and his basketball buddies, among other friends, partied in a Volkswagen minivan, "When the pot was gone," Maraniss writes, "they tilted their heads back and sucked in the last bit of smoke from the ceiling." Or in Washington terms, one might say they were trying to make maximum use of available resources.
Whether such details amuse or appall you, it's not news that young Barry Obama enjoyed a toke or two back in his school days. In his memoir "Dreams from My Father" and on the campaign trail, he was refreshing in his candor compared with Bill Clinton, who famously said he smoked but "didn't inhale," or George W. Bush, who refused to confirm or deny accounts reporters had received from his friends.
All three were elected anyway, a sign of how much the times and attitudes have relaxed about the demon weed. A significant turning point came in November when the Gallup Poll found that, for the first time in its 42-year history of asking the question, a majority of Americans believe marijuana should be legalized nationwide. "Ending the war on cannabis consumers is no longer a political liability," Erik Altieri, communications coordinator for pro-legalization NORML said recently. "It is a political possibility."
Activists were elated when Obama acknowledged that legalization was "an entirely legitimate topic for debate" — the first time a sitting president has made such a statement, according to Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. Obama promised to maintain a hands-off approach toward California's pot clinics that adhered to state law, which legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes in 1996. "I'm not going to be using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws (on medical marijuana)," he said, according to Rolling Stone magazine.
But activists' joy quickly evaporated as marijuana arrests surged to new record highs — more than 850,000 in 2009 and in 2010, according to the latest annual FBI crime reports. That's more than half of all drug arrests, contrary to the popular but reckless notion that "nobody" gets busted for grass anymore.
And federal agents have launched more than 100 raids in nine medical marijuana states, resulting in at least 61 federal indictments, according to data compiled by Americans for Safe Access, an advocacy group. The raids have closed down dozens of distributors operating legally under state law, and a high-profile training academy for providers in Oakland, Calif.
It is against the backdrop of those events that Obama's youthful weed indiscretions raise intriguing new questions, such as: Would today's Barack Obama arrest young Barry Obama?
The answer, judging by his recent interview with Rolling Stone, appears to be maybe not, as long as young Barry were a medical marijuana patient.
The president claimed there is no contradiction between current policy and his earlier comments: "What I specifically said was that we were not going to prioritize prosecutions of persons who are using medical marijuana," Obama said. "I never made a commitment that somehow we were going to give carte blanche to large-scale producers and operators of marijuana — and the reason is, because it's against federal law."
Or, as the old saying goes, there's always a loophole — especially when you're dealing with lawyer-politicians.
The president noted that, "there haven't been prosecutions of users of marijuana for medical purposes." Maybe not. But any sense of clarity about the federal marijuana policy has gone up in smoke.
Clarence Page is a member of the Tribune's editorial board and blogs at chicagotribune.com/pagespage.
Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Obama's pot reform goes up in smoke
Posted by Jim Hatridge