May I let my voice be a clarion call. I will use these words for justice. I will use these words for truth. And humour.

Friday, March 27, 2009


Obama on Marijuana Legalization and the Economy?

So, today on the nation's first online question and answer session with President Obama, he took the time to address a question related to an issue that matters to many Americans.

His exact words were:
We took votes about which questions were going to be asked, and I think 3 million people voted, or 3.5 million voted.

I have to say that there was one question that was voted on that ranked fairly high, and that was whether legalizing marijuana would improve the economy [note: the live in-studio audience all starts chuckling at this point], and job creation, and ah -- I don't know what this says about the online audience, but I just want -- I don't want people to think that ah -- this was a fairly popular question -- and we want to make sure that it was answered.

The answer is 'No, I don't think that is a good strategy to grow our economy.'
And here is a link to the actual questions,* and not Obama's paraphrasing of it. Wow, there is a lot that could be said regarding this. It's late, and I'm going to bed soon, so I'll only say about half of it, and I'm going to be sloppy about citing sources (sorry). If you want the information, it's out there at the few links I will be providing.

First, it is great that he is having online question and answer sessions, to address questions that a plurality of Americans want to know about. As evidenced by the Bush administration's method of hand-picking reporters allowed into the reporter room, and heavily penalizing those who don't ask appropriate slow-pitch softball style questions, Obama could get through the presidency without doing this.

Second, honestly there are much more important issues in the United States to deal with than marijuana reform. There are wars to end and peace to begin, there are homeless and hungry and unemployed people. There are civil rights to be won for those in the LGBT community, and civil rights to be secured for people of color, and for immigrants. There are environmental issues that need addressing, and medical care for all. The list goes on and on.

But, as was evidenced during that brief stint when John McCain wanted to pull out of the debates because of the "Emergency Bail Out" bill (that gave all that money to banks that had greedily overleveraged themselves out of any semblance of fiscal balance), a good president needs to be able to handle more than one thing at once. Therefore in addition to the things mentioned above, President Obama should devote some of his time in office ending the "drug war" and reforming national policy regarding marijuana. Despite the difficulty of his answer today, I still believe that a decriminalization of marijuana is one among many of the "change we can believe in."

Third, I believe the audience was laughing partially from their own lack of comfort with this now-apparently-taboo topic, and also because to those who have not been on the front lines of the drug war, there is no context in which marijuana legalization actually makes sense, because there is no conversation or thought about it. Therefore the idea of legalization or decriminalization in order to boost the economy sounds like a tricky joke or something. But that question was indeed asked in earnest. Because MILLIONS of American lives depend on it. There are now millions of Americans who have been arrested for drug possession, and it affects their employability and their family life, and if they go to jail or prison, is a major DRAIN on the economy. Especially when prison or jail is NOT even an ethical answer for non-violent behavior. Those people could be working and paying money into the tax pool, rather than having their lives ruined behind bars while the prison system takes money out of the tax pool.

So, fourth, yes, there would be billions of dollars saved by eliminating the war on drugs*, so our taxes could go towards other things, instead of going toward: DEA raids on licensed medical cannabis dispensaries; state and federal prison population of non-violent drug offenders multiplied by $30k per prisoner; and toward militarized anti-drug operations at home and abroad, which have a way of smudging the lines and becoming dangerously close to military operations. So the above money could go toward other things. After all, it's not as if THIRTY YEARS of the drug war has really made much of a difference in anything other than us having less money, more people in prison, more racial discrimination, and pretty much the same amount of people trying drugs.
*note that this link is to a petition created by Nobel prize winning economist Milton Friedman and signed by hundreds of economists

Fifth, there would be billions of dollars earned by legalizing and taxing marijuana. There is no doubt in this. That money could go toward honest education programs, and toward drug (and alcohol) counseling. Instead of billions of dollars going toward armed drug cartels who are also bringing cocaine and heroin into our country, there would be a new sector of the economy. Compared to 700 billion dollars, it wouldn't be much, but then what does compare to 700 billion dollars, except for the entirety of the banking industry?

Sixth, even though it would help the economy, why should legalization/decriminalization be based on whether it would help grow the economy? Why make a decision such as this based on whether it would grow the economy when there are far more compelling reasons? For Christ's sake (and I do mean that literally), is the US now going to make ALL of its decisions based on whether there is money to be had? I DETEST that. I LOATHE that. I DESPISE that backward/myopic-principled way of thinking. It needs to be ushered to the exit door.

Seventh, here are some other reasons for decriminalization/legalization.
  • There really are people who are finding a variety of medical benefits from marijuana, and reliable studies have even verified this.
  • There are people whose lives are being destroyed, not by marijuana use directly, but by a penal system which follows biased and outdated ideologies, damning to jail those who use and distribute it.
  • Marijuana has been shown to be far less harmful to people than alcohol or tobacco, but those are legal, regulated, and (heavily) taxed. Simply put, that is double-think.
  • The drug war is class and race war -- blacks and latino/as are disproportionately represented among those who are put in prison (according to mandatory minimum sentences, even!) as a result of non-violent drug offenses.
  • Marijuana plants produce a lot of oxygen -- the planet needs more oxygen NOW, and these can grow a lot faster than forests (of course I would also recommend reforestation ASAP as well).
  • Finally, there is the issue of personal freedom to do as we choose. The United States has long been touted as "the land of the free." The war on drugs, coupled with peoples' continued desire to use them is a strong test against that notion -- because of prohibition, people are not free at all to use cannabis. Every argument I've heard from proponents for restriction on this freedom are either arbitrary or circular, frequently pointing to the illegality as the reason for itself.

Eighth, here are some things that hinder decriminalization/legalization, mainly corporate interests -- a few of which may have helped to get Obama into office. :(
  • The pharmaceutical industry doesn't want people to be able to grow their own pain relief.
  • If marijuana is legalized, there will be massive amounts of hemp fiber available for everything from clothing to rope, to sheets, to paper, to cooking oil, to insulation, to biodegradable plastics.
  • The tobacco, alcohol, and coffee industries don't want to have to give up their corner on the recreational drug market.
  • The prison and corrections industry has been enjoying a real boom lately, and the big box stores who hire prison labor at slavery wages also enjoy having locked-up non-violent drug offenders to help with their profit margins.** We, as shoppers, should take very careful heed of from where we buy our products.
  • Drug traffickers and dealers, despite the possibilities of getting caught, enjoy the immense profit they can make when they sell plants at 100x their natural cost to produce.
  • And V.P. Joe Biden and Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel have both been fairly well linked to -- and supportive of -- the war on drugs in the past.
My hope against hope, is that Obama, being the incredibly intelligent man that he is, is biding his time and waiting for the context to be ripe to introduce this. Decriminalization or legalization of marijuana is one of the many things that he needs to get done during his tenure in office. And if he is planning to wait until his second term to do this, it would certainly be a shame if he doesn't get re-elected, or ends up with a cantankerous Republican congress to deal in the future. The best time to do this is in the next two years.

*From, it appears that in 4 different categories, the questions about marijuana legalization were in the top ten most voted for the following constructed categories (I copy them here because information on the Internet has a way of vanishing overnight):

Health Care Reform (2 of top 10)

"Why is marijuana still illegal? Cigarettes and alcohol are far more harmful, and with the taxes put on the legal distribution of marijuana the US could make millions" Ben R, Washington, DC

"As a person with Multiple Sclerosis, I have many other MS friends who use marijuana just to feel some relief from their bodies. When can pressure be placed to reclassify Cannabis from a Schedule 1 drug (no medical benefit) to Schedule 5?" Marcia, Texas

Green Jobs and Energy (the top 2!)

""Will you consider decriminalizing the recreational/medical use of marijuana(hemp) so that the government can regulate it, tax it, put age limits on it, and create millions of new jobs and a multi-billion dollar industry right here in the U.S.?”" Green Machine, Winchester,VA

"Has your administration given any serious thought to how legalizing marijuana could help solve the economic crisis? We could tax this green product and create an influx of cash while reducing violence created by the war of drugs & illegal trafficking" Ashley, Brooklyn, NY

Financial Stability (the top 4!)

"Would you support the bill currently going through the California legislation to legalize and tax marijuana, boosting the economy and reducing drug cartel related violence?" Anthony, Warrington, PA

"Has the administration given any thought to legalizing marijuana, as a cash crop to fuel the economy? Why not make available, regulate, and tax something that that about 10 million Americans use regularly and is less harmful than tobacco or alcohol." Sarah, Atlanta, GA

"Growing up I have noticed many around me always talk about legalization of marijuana, and I always thought, why not put a tax stamp on it. If marijuana was legalized it could really change a lot of things. America had the same problem with Alcohol." Peter McNamara, Minneapolis, MN

"Could legalizing marijuana and laying a tax on it, given restriction allow the government make back some of the glaring debt considering it's inelasticity and the history of economics of prohibition?" Andy Drake, New Brunswick, NJ

Jobs (2 of the top ten)

"What are your plans for the failing, "War on Drugs", thats sucking money from tax payers and putting non-violent people in prison longer than the violent criminals?" Matt B, West Bend, WI

"President Obama, Do you plan on letting Science end the failed "War" on Marijuana for personal and medical use thus taking the strain of our prisons and police forces so that we no longer have to arrest over 800,000 non violent drug offenders?" Phill, Georgetown,MA

Budget (the top 7!)

"With over 1 out of 30 Americans controlled by the penal system, why not legalize, control, and tax marijuana to change the failed war on drugs into a money making, money saving boost to the economy? Do we really need that many victimless criminals?" Ryan Palmer, Dallas, TX

"Mr. Obama, Thank you for allowing us to ask our questions to you, unfiltered. What is your stance on legalizing marijuana federally, taxing it and regulating much like alcohol and tobacco? I believe that the Drug War has failed, and needs overhaul." Brian, Minneapolis, MN

"I am not a marijuana user, but I do believe that making marijuana legal could provide some relief as to it could be heavily taxed and regulated. Legalization of marijuana will also be a detriment to the drug cartels in Latin America." Ryan McLaughlin, Rindge, NH / Quakertown, PA

"Have you considered legalizing marijuana and taxing/regulating it like alcohol? Marijuana is America's largest cash crop. The tax revenue from marijuana sales would provide a massive source of new revenue and cut the insane costs of the "Drug War."" Matt S, Huntsville, AL

"Mr. President, we the people continue to ask you this general question, please do not fail to respond: Will you allow science and common sense to reign and end this failed WAR ON DRUGS starting with the legalization and taxation of Marijuana?" Mark B, Sterling,VA

"Should the recreational use of marijuana be legalized and taxed if it will help California reduce its budget deficit? How will you and the federal government respond if such a law is passed by the California legislature?" JHawk, Santa Barbara, CA

"Are you willing to seriously consider the idea of curtailing the failed & expensive drug war in favor of a fair, responsible policy of decriminalization? With Mexican gangs, drug-related disease, & addicition going unchecked we need another solution." T.Kapanka, San Francisco, CA

That's a lot of questions (17 out of the top 110 questions), and I imagine that they got spread out across all of those categories because among the available categories, none of them seemed to jump out easily a social policy reform, or prison reform, or marijuana reform. Funny how lack of a category for something can be a form of inhibiting conversation about it, or making it seem awkwardly shoe-horned in. In retrospect, it's no wonder that the economic angle is where the question was built on that Obama chose to answer. After reading all these questions, I find it so sad that he ended up simply answering, "No," and it really is kind of infuriating that he was so cavalier and jocular about it.

**Here's an interesting/mortifying tidbit regarding humanity's propensity to enforce slave labor that I learned in a book I am reading for my Prisons and Punishment class (from page 39) -- "In the South, after the Civil War, former slaves were sentenced to prison and then leased out by the prison to work for local plantation owners."

lyrics: "I think you missed the point! Arresting for a joint?"
-F***king Hostile, by Pantera

colors: Red, White, Blue, Green

mood: Sleepy

chant/prayer/mantra: May the world get back to nature one day. And not the hard way.

pax hominibus,
agape to all,

Edit on March 29, 2009: Several people have stepped up and spoken out against Barack Obama's flippancy on the answer, including this heart-rending case study and this real-life case study about how serious marijuana legalization is as an issue, regarding medical treatment. In this post, the question is posed as to why Cannabis is still listed as a schedule one drug, when all indications are that it should be listed in a less dangerous class (in other words, it does not have a high potential for abuse, it is considered medically significant in several states, and 'safety for medical use' is not an issue), and recommends that the Attorney General could do so immediately.

And this question directed at Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama, all three of whom have admitted to using drugs in the past and were not give the same treatment as the victims in the war on drugs. And there's this post by Dan Sweeney, where he makes some cogent arguments parallel to mine, but perhaps more focused and better worded.

And here is the Obama administration's earlier response to questions on the Internet about marijuana legalization: On 12/15/08, "President-elect Obama is not in favor of the legalization of marijuana." What exactly does that mean? It means that they crafted that answer specifically not to say that he is opposed to it. It also does not say that he is not in favor of the currently criminalized state of marijuana, and it also does not say whether or not he is in favor of decriminalization of marijuana. A subtle difference, but if we recall the context of Washington politics, one of our recent past presidents tried to redefine the meaning of "is," and another tried to redefine the meaning of "mission accomplished," so something like this wouldn't be out of the ken of possibility.

Also, Nirvana's Krist Novoselic weighed in on the co-op model used for cannabis clubs, and how a similar model could be used for health care. Good job thinking outside the box there.

It's interesting to note that in 1972, the editors for Consumer Reports magazine did a wide review of histories and effects of various drugs, including Cannabis.

And to close, here's a beauty from Italy. A lonesome shepherd should be allowed marijuana for personal use, because he's out in nature all alone with his sheep.

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