In Barack Obama: The Story, biographer David Maraniss writes that the president spent his youth in Hawaii getting stoned on a paved road up Mount Tantalus, where he took “roof hits” in smoke-filled cars with his friends, the Choom Gang. (To “choom” is Hawaiian slang for smoking marijuana.) Obama loved weed so much, Maraniss writes, he thanked his pot dealer, but not his mother, in his high school yearbook.
Decades later, the Choomer turned president is in a historically unprecedented position when it comes to drug policy in the United States. Marijuana is illegal under the Controlled Substances Act, but two states, Washington and Colorado, voted in November to legalize and regulate its sale and use by adults 21 and older. This conflict with federal law puts all eyes on Obama, who, despite his smoke-filled teenage years, has refused to consider marijuana legalization as an alternative to prohibition. Indeed, drug policy reformers have endured a rocky four years (to put it mildly) in their relationship with the Obama administration. That’s why, when the president told Barbara Walters in December that his administration had “bigger fish to fry” than prosecuting recreational users of state-legal pot, legalization advocates took that statement with a grain of salt. The last time Obama said he would allow the states to determine their own policies on medical marijuana, he ended up busting more state-sanctioned dispensaries than George W. Bush.
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, is confident that the recent state-level legalization victories mark a “turning point” that will inspire more politicians and voters to become curious, even passionate, about marijuana policy. “It’s causing lawmakers to rethink this issue,” Nadelmann says, adding that political risk is “the same reason the White House said nothing about the ballot initiatives in Washington and Colorado before the election.”
While preparing a response to a possible federal crackdown is a priority for the legalization movement, advocates are hoping for more than just nonintervention from the feds. They would like to see an open conversation about drug policy that will turn more policy-makers into legalization advocates, and more states (red and blue alike) a cannabis-friendly green. For that domino effect to happen, however, they must first craft a message that convinces people that voting for reform or even outright legalization is not a vote for pot, but a vote against the multidimensional disasters of prohibition—a web of mass incarceration and racial injustice, tangled up with everything from foreign policy to public benefits at home.
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According to the FBI, in 2011 more than 750,000 Americans were arrested for marijuana-related offenses, accounting for roughly half of all drug crimes in the United States. Eighty-seven percent of marijuana-related arrests were for possession alone—a minor crime that can still cause major problems in one’s life.
The good news is that, should the feds decide to crack down on Colorado and Washington, there is no way to force local law enforcement to arrest marijuana users in those two states. They could, however, still go after some large-scale distributors, as they have done with medical marijuana suppliers in California and Montana.