Wanda James immediately felt drawn to Barack Obama when she met him at a Colorado fundraiser in early 2008. He’s one of us, she thought. He gets this. She was especially energized by the candidate’s stance on drug policy. In 2004, Obama had described the “war on drugs” as “an utter failure,” and on the campaign trail in 2008, when asked by Oregon’s Mail Tribune about medical cannabis, he said, “There really is no difference between that and a doctor prescribing morphine or anything else.” He added, “What I’m not going to be doing is using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue.”
James, who joined Obama’s national finance committee, says she bundled approximately $200,000 for his campaign. “Everything that I could have possibly done as a private citizen to get this man elected, I did,” she said.
But among many of Obama’s 2008 backers for whom drug policy reform was a significant issue, excitement has turned to disillusionment. Under the president’s watch, there have been unprecedented federal crackdowns on medical cannabis in the seventeen states that have allowed it, along with Washington, DC. Federal intervention continues in Colorado, leader of the national industry, where James owned a medical cannabis business. She closed it in August when her bank no longer allowed such accounts. Obama still has James’s vote, but this year, she said, “I will not raise money for anybody who will not come out for medical marijuana.”
The president cannot afford to lose support. In Colorado, a battleground state worth nine electoral votes, Obama’s lead over Mitt Romney was already razor thin even before the president’s disastrous first debate performance.
Obama’s stance against the legalization of marijuana, which will be on the Colorado ballot, runs counter to majority opinion in this key state. Amendment 64 would allow adults 21 and older to possess one ounce of cannabis and grow six plants. Support for the measure is strong; an October Talking Points Memo poll average shows 50.3 percent in support and 40 percent opposed. If the initiative passes, Colorado will be the first state to end cannabis prohibition since it began seventy-five years ago.
James and her husband opened a medical cannabis business in Colorado only after the Justice Department’s October 2009 Ogden memo advised federal prosecutors to “not focus federal resources in your States on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.” But since then, US attorneys in more than half the states with medical cannabis laws have written letters to state officials stating, essentially, that federal law trumps state law. Many states stood by their laws, but Delaware, for example, suspended its dispensary program. Some letters emphasized that state employees were not “immune from liability” even if they followed state law. Others threatened landlords renting to medical cannabis businesses or banks holding medical cannabis accounts. The IRS audited dispensaries in California and Colorado, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said medical cannabis users couldn’t own firearms, in effect treating legal patients as criminals.
Some Obama supporters are searching for answers. Marsha Rosenbaum, director emerita of the Drug Policy Alliance’s San Francisco office, bundled $204,000 for Obama in 2008, an experience she described as “joyful.” Now she is reluctant to fundraise because Obama is a hard sell. “People are just confused about what the federal government is doing and where these directives are coming from,” Rosenbaum said. At a January fundraiser in Washington (price tag: $35,800), she handed Obama a letter from people who had been major donors to his 2008 campaign. The group remained committed to his re-election, it said, but “federal officials, including your appointees, have become increasingly aggressive in undermining your initial statements and commitments.” She never got a response. Still, she encourages “disgruntled friends in the drug policy reform movement” to support Obama this fall but push for progress in a second term.