What was your favorite badaboom in President Obama’s routine at the White House Correspondents dinner? Here’s mine, from when he was talking about how “the media landscape is changing so rapidly”:
You can’t keep up with it. I mean, I remember when BuzzFeed was just something I did in college around two A.M. (Laughter.) It’s true! (Laughter.)
Obama’s joke shows how far we’ve come since the not-so-long-ago days when standard operating procedure for a politician outed on pot smoking was to plead “youthful experimentation,” express contrition, and boast modestly of having straightened up and flown right. This President, as far as I know, has never said any such thing; he has no apparent regrets in that department. His joke allowed the tuxedoed, evening-gowned, middle-aged audience at the Washington Hilton to feel, for a precious moment, hip. The subtext was that smoking pot, whether a lot or a little, is just a normal part of growing up—maybe even, for some, part of being grown up. Marijuana doesn’t seem to have ruined his life, which has been pretty successful so far. Nor has it done much to blight the lives of the other people in the Hilton ballroom, most of whom, like the rest of the media, political, and Hollywood élites, have smoked pot, too.
We are now on our third straight (so to speak) President who, the evidence more than suggests, have personally flouted the laws against having possession of marijuana. But the incumbent is the first who has an irrefutable history as an “enthusiastic” (his characterization, not mine) stoner. If you read “Dreams from My Father,” then you know that Obama liked not only the drug’s psychoactive effects but also what might be called its democratizing qualities:
I had discovered that it didn’t make any difference if you smoked reefer in the white classmate’s sparkling new van, or in the dorm room with some brother you’d met down at the gym, or on the beach with a couple of Hawaiian kids who had dropped out of school…. Everybody was welcome into the club of disaffection. And if the high didn’t solve whatever it was that was getting you down, it could at least help you laugh at the world’s ongoing folly and see through all the hypocrisy and bullshit and cheap moralism.
David Maraniss, in “Barack Obama: The Story,” provides some pungent detail, helpfully summarized by none other than BuzzFeed. Young Barry, leader of a Punahou School clique styling itself the Choom Gang, pioneered “T.A.”—short for Total Absorption, the polar opposite of “I didn’t inhale.” Among other recreations, the future President was into “roof hits,” a non-wasteful method of smoking pot in a car (usually that white classmate’s V.W. bus, dubbed the Choomwagon) with the windows rolled up. Once the joint was reduced to a roach but some smoke was still trapped overhead, he and his friends would crane their necks upward to whoosh in the last wisps. He was also adept at “interceptions,” i.e., sneaking an extra toke when it wasn’t his turn—a risky stratagem, punishable, if noticed, by being skipped over on the next pass-around.
The problem with the joke, as with all those knowing chuckles at the Hilton, is that a great many people are suffering on account of marijuana—just not from the weed itself. Like young Obama, people who smoke marijuana do so because they find that it alleviates suffering (psychological, spiritual, physical), or simply because it helps them relax and enjoy themselves. Marijuana-associated suffering enters the picture only when prohibition does:
Police prosecuted 858,408 persons for marijuana violations in 2009, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s annual Uniform Crime Report.… Of those charged with marijuana violations, approximately 88 percent (758,593 Americans) were charged with possession only. The remaining 99,815 individuals were charged with “sale/manufacture,” a category that includes virtually all cultivation offenses.
There are still states where simple possession can theoretically put you in prison for life if it’s your third strike, but outrages like the one John Lennon immortalized thirty years ago are rare. Even so, tens of thousands of people still languish in federal and state prisons for marijuana offenses in a typical year, and just about everybody who gets busted for pot spends time locked up. Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, estimates that from fifty to a hundred thousand Americans are behind bars for pot, and only pot, on any given night. The longer-term consequences can be a lot worse than a few hours of humiliating inconvenience. If you’re employed, you can lose your job. If you’re in college, you can lose your financial aid and you will lose your eligibility for student loans, as have some two hundred thousand of your peers. If you’re undocumented, you’ll probably get deported. If you’re a parolee, you’re apt to find yourself back in jail for the remainder of your sentence. All of which, of course, is but a small part of the suffering caused by the gargantuan, perpetual “war on drugs.”
So the joke was perhaps a little tasteless, if you’re the sensitive type. Not as callous as the video Bush junior made for the 2004 dinner, in which he pretended to look under the Oval Office furniture, mumbling, “Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be here somewhere.” But still a trifle discomfiting.
I like to think that if Obama had a Johnsonian majority on Capitol Hill, marijuana would no longer come under the federal criminal code. It would be the I.R.S.’s concern, not the D.E.A.’s. But then, if Obama had a Johnsonian majority we’d have single-payer universal health care, a hefty carbon tax, and semi-meaningful gun control. And Guantánamo would be just another naval base. So there’s no mystery about why Obama hasn’t tried to do anything legislatively to humanize the marijuana status quo. But there’s quite a lot he could have done—could still do—administratively and through executive orders.
For a start, he could arrange for the Justice Department to end the absurd classification of marijuana as a supremely dangerous Schedule I drug, like heroin. And he shouldn’t just knock it down to Schedule II, cheek by jowl with cocaine. Better to demote it to Schedule IV, where it would have Xanax and Ambien for company, or clear down to Schedule V, reserved for cough medicine. Better still, take it off the “schedule” altogether. If alcohol isn’t on there, marijuana shouldn’t be, either.
Second, he could make it clear—to the public, to the Justice Department, to the D.E.A.—that his policy is to avoid making life unnecessarily difficult for the eighteen states (plus D.C.) that allow marijuana use for medical purposes, for the two states that have made its recreational use permissible under state law (including Colorado; see Ryan Lizza’s piece on John Hickenlooper, the governor, in this week’s issue), for the dozen or so states and hundreds of localities that have decriminalized possession of small amounts, and, overall, for peaceful, otherwise inoffending marijuana smokers. To date, the Obama Administration’s signals in these areas have been confusing and its actions only slightly better (some would say slightly worse) than its predecessors’.
Third, but by no means last, he could change the name of the Office of National Drug Control Policy—a.k.a. the White House “drug czar”—to the Office of National Harm Reduction Drug Policy, and tell it to come up with something halfway as reasonable as the report of the Nixon-appointed Shafer commission, which, in 1972, when Obama was in sixth grade, recommended making marijuana legal.
Back here in the present, though, the drug czar’s latest ukase, ninety-five stupefying pages long, was issued last week. It makes some feeble gestures toward reform but mainly recycles the same old obsolete blather. In his introduction, President Obama mentions pot in only one sentence, and a curiously ambiguous sentence it is:
Despite positive trends in other areas, we continue to see elevated rates of marijuana use among young people, likely driven by declines in perceptions of risk.
Since he is suggesting that “elevated rates of marijuana use among young people” is not a positive trend (which it no doubt isn’t), is he implying that elevated rates of marijuana use among old people is a positive trend? (Which it certainly is, given the comfort cannabis provides for geriatric patients.) Also, is he purposely leaving open the possibility that “young people” are correct in perceiving marijuana use to be less risky (less risky healthwise, presumably) than—well, than the government has spent the last eighty years telling them it is?
Probably not, alas. I’m probably just grasping at straws. Obama is a busy man. He doesn’t have time to read, let alone encode, everything that appears over his robo-signature. But he really ought to feel a smidgen of shame that the government he heads treats people who do exactly what he used to do, and now casually jokes about, as criminals.
You can find good reporting on marijuana in general and medical marijuana in particular in O’Shaughnessy’s, a journal named after the physician who introduced cannabis to Western medicine in 1839. The annual print edition is distributed by doctors to patients, and articles are now being posted on its Web site, along with a blog by the managing editor, Fred Gardner. Gardner’s unusual résumé includes stints as an editor at Scientific American, an anti-war organizer, a private investigator, and press spokesman for the district attorney of San Francisco—all relevant experience, given that O’Shaughnessy’s covers pot-related science, medicine, politics, law, and history. O’Shaughnessy’s was co-founded in 2003 by the late Tod Mikuriya, M.D., the California doctor who was famously accused by Bill Clinton’s drug czar Barry McCaffrey of practicing “Cheech and Chong medicine.”
Above: A medical-cannabis cultivation facility in Denver. Photograph by Matthew Staver/Washington Post/Getty