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Obama’s War on Pot | The Nation

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Obama’s War on Pot

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President Barack Obama

In February 2013, three months after Colorado and Washington legalized recreational marijuana, a sullen Gil Kerlikowske, head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), shared his regrets with the Canadian magazine Maclean’s. “The administration has not done a particularly good job,” he said, “of, one, talking about marijuana as a public health issue, and number two, talking about what can be done and where we should be headed on our drug policy.” People in mourning are given to melodrama, but Kerlikowske’s attempt to blame marijuana legalization on poor messaging was evidence of psychosis.

From day one of Obama’s presidency, the press—from local outfits to the major networks—had hailed his administration’s promise to treat drugs as a “public health issue” as if it were a novel idea. It wasn’t. White House Czar Calls for End to ‘War on Drugs,’ the headline of a 2009 Wall Street Journal profile of Kerlikowske, could just as easily have been written in 1996 about Gen. Barry McCaffrey, drug czar under Bill Clinton. Another popular Kerlikowske line—“You can’t arrest your way out of the drug problem”—similarly echoed McCaffrey’s statement that “the solution to our drug problem is not in incarceration.”

This tradition of critiquing the drug war while continuing to wage it was similarly evident in the 2012 claim by the ONDCP that marijuana’s potency has “almost tripled over the past 20 years”—a statement only slightly less hysterical than its warning to parents, ten years earlier, describing today’s marijuana as having “potency levels ten to twenty times stronger” than the pot of their generation. Anti-legalization advocate Kevin Sabet, who worked on drug policy under both George W. Bush and Obama, has described the potency of today’s marijuana as “five-to-six times greater” than the pot that baby boomers smoked in their youth. (While it’s true that you can buy stronger pot today, you can also—thanks to the botanical tinkering of the medical marijuana community—find strains that are milder. If boomers can’t find the pot of their youth these days—stuff grown and sold before the Controlled Substances Act—it’s because prohibition historically encourages a disproportionately high potency-to-volume ratio. See: bathtub gin.)

Nevertheless, Obama’s drug policy was hailed as revolutionary by the press even as the Drug Enforcement Administration wreaked havoc on medical marijuana communities in California, Colorado and Montana during his first term. On September 25, 2012, in the midst of re-election season, the DEA tried to shut down more than seventy medical marijuana dispensaries in and around Los Angeles. According to LA Weekly’s reporting at the time, “Federal authorities sent warning letters—which tell operators to shut down—to 68 stores. Additionally, three shops were hit with asset-forfeiture lawsuits and another three were raided via search warrant.”

Yet the next day, CNN ran a segment titled “The ‘War on Drugs’ Withdrawal: Administration Focusing on Prevention.”

Ineffective messaging was clearly not the problem. By November 2012, Americans likely knew as much as an average person could be expected to know about Obama’s supposed public-health-centered approach to drug policy. Yet in Colorado, Washington and Massachusetts (states where medical marijuana was on the ballot), voters still pulled the lever in favor of liberalization. In Arkansas—a state that Mitt Romney won by a landslide—a medical marijuana initiative received more votes than Obama.

Support for legalization has only increased in the last year. A Gallup poll released in late October found that 58 percent of Americans think recreational marijuana should be legal. A Public Policy Polling survey conducted weeks earlier found majority support for legalizing pot in deep-red Texas. A legalization initiative in Portland, Maine, had majority support as of late October, and studies suggest that if Californians voted on the issue today, they’d legalize pot despite refusing to do so in 2010. As with so many issues, the federal government is lagging behind the rest of the country.

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The disconnect between narrative and reality when it comes to the Obama administration’s drug policy can be partly traced to a memo released by the Justice Department in October 2009. Raids on dispensaries and growers had already picked up following Obama’s inauguration, despite his campaign promise to cease targeting state-legal pot clubs. But this memo, colloquially referred to as the Ogden memo, was supposed to change that. It stated that medical marijuana would not be a priority for federal law enforcement unless it was being grown or sold in conjunction with a larger criminal enterprise.

The memo inspired celebration among medical marijuana advocates, and a sense of relief in state and local lawmakers. Yet less than a year later, DEA agents raided the home of 68-year-old Joy Greenfield, a Mendocino County, California, resident who grew marijuana with the blessing of her local sheriff. Agents destroyed Greenfield’s plants and seized her money and computer. As they have many times since, the DEA and US Attorneys then had the records sealed—a common practice in cases where releasing information might reveal the identity of a tipster or jeopardize an investigation, but hard to understand in the case of Greenfield, whom officers didn’t even bother to arrest. If the real goal is to conceal the extent to which agents have targeted small-time growers with no ties to cartels or interstate trafficking operations, however, sealing such records is an effective way to do so.

A June 2013 report issued by Americans for Safe Access found that the DEA had carried out some 270 medical marijuana raids under Obama—twelve more than had been conducted in the previous twelve years combined. It calculated that the Obama administration had spent $300 million “interfering” with state medical marijuana laws in the last four and a half years, outspending the Bush administration (both terms) by $100 million. 

The Ogden memo was not only supposed to prevent these raids; to those in the medical marijuana industry, it had sent a message encouraging the industry’s growth. Indeed, some have said that the reason the number of raids carried out under Obama spiked is due explicitly to the sheer number of dispensaries that set up shop after the memo’s release. 

In January 2013, an anonymous White House official told the Huffington Post that the Ogden memo had been misconstrued: it was never meant to encourage the industry’s growth. “If you read the memo, with the exception of a few words you maybe could’ve worded better, it’s really not that different from current law,” the source told reporters Ryan Grim and Ryan J. Reilly. “It took us by surprise, I will tell you, the way it was received in the beginning, and then the media ran with that narrative, that this was a change in policy and Obama’s gonna allow medical marijuana shops. 

“The smart legalizers ran with that too,” the source went on, “even though the really smart ones knew, when you read that memo, there really wasn’t much of a change from the Bush administration. All of a sudden, it took on a life of its own.”

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