Obama Has Failed to Live Up to Previous Statements About Marijuana Decriminalization

Mar 10, 2013 | Criminal Justice/Prison-Industrial Complex, Marijuana Legalization and the War on Drugs, President Obama

Published: mic (March 10, 2013)

The marijuana editorial you are about to read begins with a recent speech by Ron Paul and ends with a tongue-lashing penned more than a century ago by a presidential prostitute.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Last Friday, former Congressman Paul (R-Texas) spoke to a gathering of prominent Canadian conservatives to declare that “the drug war needs to be repealed.” Reading his remarks, one might have been reminded of the words of another idealistic legislator nine years earlier:

“The war on drugs has been an utter failure. We need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws. We need to rethink how we’re operating the drug war.”

Unlike Paul, that statesman — a then-obscure state Senator from Illinois named Barack Obama — was destined to acquire real political power, one that he has sadly failed to use to fulfill the promise of his statement from 2004. To understand why that has happened, one can turn to Congressman Jared Polis (D-Colo.), who earlier this year introduced HR-499 (a House bill to end the federal ban on marijuana) and was asked a few weeks later which special interest groups were most effective in blocking progress on the measure. As he candidly explained:

“The law enforcement industrial complex. All those on the gravy train of the drug war which means parts of law enforcement and their private sector vendors.”

The term “law enforcement industrial complex” can’t be emphasized enough. In addition to the multitude of law enforcement agencies which directly or indirectly depend on the drug war to keep personnel on the payrolls, receive large financial allocations in state and/or federal budgets, and even continue to exist at all (viz., the Drug Enforcement Agency), a large and growing number of American prisons are contracted out to private, for-profit businesses, creating a $70 billion industry in the process.

Since the financial success of these companies depends on cheaply housing as many inmates as possible, they naturally have a vested interest in maintaining — and when possible strengthening — our current drug laws. As laid out in the annual report of the Corrections Corporation of America, the largest of these firms, their growth “could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.”

The human and financial toll of the federal ban on marijuana is, quite literally, inestimable. Our most recent statistics on the total number of inmates incarcerated for specifically pot-related offenses date back to 2004; at that time, more than 44,000 people were in state or federal prison for marijuana crimes (one-eighth of the total number of incarcerated drug offenders), and even that figure failed to incorporate any data on the more than 700,000 inmates at local jails. By the beginning of this decade, roughly 6,200 people were being sent to jail each year for growing, trafficking, or possessing marijuana, while over 750,000 arrests were occurring annually for simple possession, as compared to the less than 650,000 made due to violent crimes. The total cost of this anti-marijuana crusade was, at least back when it was last tabulated in 2004, more than $1 billion.

While some of this could be at least hypothetically justified if marijuana posed a serious threat to public health and safety, neither claim holds up to either empirical analysis or jurisprudential scrutiny. Only 7.3% of federal imprisoned marijuana offenders committed their crimes with a weapon, ranking as the least likely of any drug offenders to have used guns while breaking the law. In fact, the existing evidence shows no meaningful correlation between marijuana use and violent crime, with aggressive marijuana users usually being people who had violent histories before their relationship with the drug.

Even studies focused on comparing the criminological predictive effects of alcohol, cocaine, and marijuana have determined that, of the three, only “alcohol and cocaine use appear to play a significant role in explaining violence.” Likewise, studies have repeatedly found that marijuana is no more unhealthy (and arguably less so) than legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco, a point best summed up by the World Health Organization’s conclusion that based “on existing patterns of use, cannabis poses a much less serious public health problem than is currently posed by alcohol and tobacco in Western societies.”

Then again, the very notion of having the state regulate what we do to our own bodies goes against the essence of our Founding Fathers’ principles. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “the error seems not sufficiently eradicated, that the operations of the mind, as well as the acts of the body, are subject to the coercion of the laws. But our rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others.”

This brings us back to President Obama. Although he has so far refrained from using federal law enforcement officials to prosecute recreational marijuana users in Colorado and Washington (where it was legalized last year), he has also failed to use his presidential power to even push for decriminalization.

The insightful argument he made less than a decade ago has been cast aside, buckling like so many of his other principles under the pressure of the powerful special interest groups that do more to govern our country than its elected officials. Instead Americans are being left with vague reassurances about an impending national “conversation” on the subject and halfhearted attempts to find a middle ground.

This half-heartedness, as things stand, is practically and morally unacceptable on this issue — practically so because it is insufficient against the enormous power of the law enforcement industrial complex, and morally so because it allows the rights of our citizens and the will of our Founding Fathers to continue being thwarted. What we need is strong leadership that will have the courage to puncture overinflated fallacies and defy special interest groups that place profit over principle.

If Obama fails to show that leadership during his presidency, the same criticism will be made of him as has been made of so many of his predecessors … and it is here that I return to the words of the aforementioned 19th Century prostitute, as directed against President Chester Arthur when he began to disgust her with his own wavering principles:

“Why do you take such comfort in half measures? Does it never strike you that there must be back of them only half a mind — a certain half-heartedness — in fact, only half a man? Why do you not do what you do with your whole soul? Or have you only half of one?”

April 20, 2015, 4:11 p.m.: This article has been updated.