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.
Some cannabis advocates don’t believe Obama is to blame for federal prosecutors’ actions or that the crackdowns defy the Ogden memo. “The people who think that Obama has let them down have read too much into the memo and have laid too much at the feet of the federal administration,” said Alison Holcomb, drug policy director of the ACLU in Washington and director of that state’s cannabis legalization campaign. She said each US attorney may be acting independently. The federal prosecutor in eastern Washington has aggressively closed dispensaries, she pointed out, while the one in the western part of the state left nearly 100 open in and around Seattle.
Regardless of the origins of the crackdowns, voters across the country have focused their frustration on Obama. The mood in Colorado’s medical cannabis community soured after the state’s US attorney intervened, said Steve Fox, director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), which has provided about $1 million toward the state’s legalization initiative. “There really weren’t any issues of significance, but it seems the Obama administration went out of its way to find problems, and it’s caused a bit of a backlash,” Fox said.
The number of Coloradans who care passionately about medical cannabis is not insignificant. More than 185,000 patients have registered since medical cannabis was legalized in 2000, and there are hundreds of dispensaries. The Colorado Democratic Party supports Amendment 64. In August, the National Cannabis Industry Association placed a billboard in Grand Junction, where Obama was scheduled to speak: Welcome to Colorado! Home of 100,000 patient-voters.
Mason Tvert, co-director of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, the group behind Amendment 64, believes the Obama administration is not respecting the public’s views. An October 2011 CBS News poll showed that 77 percent of Americans supported medical cannabis, and a May Mason-Dixon poll found that 74 percent supported ending federal crackdowns on cannabis and respecting state laws. This clash, Tvert says, could be a factor in how Coloradans vote, especially young people, who tend to be pro-cannabis—a demographic that helped elect Obama in 2008 and that he needs to mobilize in November. A September Public Policy Polling survey found that 59 percent of Colorado voters between the ages of 18 and 29 support the legalization initiative.
Dan Riffle, legislative analyst for the MPP, believes Obama could ultimately benefit from youth support for Amendment 64. ”I could see a lot of those young voters being disappointed and disillusioned and staying home and not voting, if not for the fact that there’s a marijuana legalization initiative on the ballot,” he says. And once they are in the voting booth, he adds, they will likely choose Obama over Romney, who is opposed to medical cannabis and said in July that “the idea of medical marijuana is designed to help get marijuana out in the public marketplace and ultimately lead to legalization of marijuana.”
With polls showing a tight presidential race and increased support for Amendment 64, Colorado may find itself in the spotlight this November not only as a determining factor in the race for the White House, but as the first state to legalize cannabis.
Nation blogger Lee Fang exposes how a “GOP Mogul Behind Drug Rehab ‘Torture’ Centers Is Bankrolling Opposition to Pot Legalization in Colorado.”