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.