You know, there are actual policy consequences for the kind of “haha, the stoners came out!” attitude that President Obama, and the media, demonstrated towards the question about ending the prohibition of marijuana at the “digital town hall” event.

I was just watching MSNBC and they had some newsdouche on to talk about the event. Being members of the media, the host and the newsdouche mostly complained about how Obama was “leapfrogging” the media with the format. But the guy being interviewed took the time to snigger and laugh at the question about the reform of our marijuana laws, in much the same way Obama did. It’s not surprising. That’s the attitude of “serious” people everywhere, that advocating changing our destructive, futile, expensive and cruel marijuana laws has to demonstrate that the person so advocating is some burned-out, disaffected stoner who just wants to smoke up and tune out. You get that from the mainstream media and most of our national politicians all the time, the absolute refusal to take reforming our marijuana laws seriously. And that’s unfair, and corrosive to democracy, and has severe negative consequences for our policy.

First of all, even if everyone who supported the decriminalization of marijuana did so out of a simple desire to be able to smoke without fear of arrest, that would be a perfectly legitimate and principled stand. This is still a country where we are supposed to be allowed to live our lives in the manner that we want, provided that we don’t harm others or infringe on their own rights to self-determine. In democracy, you vote in part for politicians who support your interests, and you make political arguments for those policy positions that benefit your own self-interest. Hopefully, if everyone does that, the will of the people as a whole is done. So it’s not like there’s something disqualifying about people who just want to smoke marijuana and be left in peace by the government. And, of course, the use of the stoner meme plays on some deeply flawed assumptions and stereotypes, that everyone who smokes marijuana falls into the same (low class, trashy) groups. That’s one of the basic impediments to finding a little sanity in our drug laws, I’m afraid: the notion that anyone who uses marijuana is an unserious, unappealing person, and that anyone who advocates decriminalizing marijuana is similarly tainted.

And, of course, the basic libertarian impulse to leave people alone– still one of our greatest national features– is only a part of the reason to support reforming our marijuana laws. The other reasons are caught up in the utter failure of criminalization to prevent Americans from using marijuana, the massive financial costs of arresting and prosecuting marijuana offenders, the waste of valuable police resources on enforcing marijuana laws, the numbers of nonviolent marijuana offenders sitting in our jails and costing us public money, the increase in police corruption and misconduct that is an inevitable part of drug criminalization, and the occasional tragedy where an arrest on a marijuana possession results in the injury or death of the accused, a police officer, or both. The costs to this country from the continued criminalization of marijuana are truly massive, and the payoff is negligible. Completely independent of any acknowledgment of a right to use marijuana is the simple cost/benefit analysis which suggest that our current system is madness.

All of this rests on what is now a banal fact: that polling consistently shows broad majorities of Americans who favor serious reform of our marijuana laws. The American people are a slow moving beast, but they aren’t completely resistant to evidence and logic, and the great costs that the prohibition of marijuana inflicts on our society hasn’t gone unnoticed. So why, if reforming marijuana laws is broadly popular, is the issue still largerly relegated to the backburner politically? Why is neither party willing to make decriminalizing marijuana a major part of their policy platform? Because even smart, pragmatic politicians like Barack Obama can’t help but make jokes about a sensible question about a worthy initiative– worthy enough, at least, of discussion. We can’t get either party on board with ending a cruel and wasteful set of drug policies because supposedly neutral reporters can’t help but get a laugh out of positions that are sensible, adult, and supported by millions of Americans.

Our attitude towards issues have consequences. Every laugh and giggle at the expense of those who want our country to reexamine a disastrous set of policies makes it less likely that we will embark on a series of changes that would leave our country pragmatically improved and more free.

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31 thoughts on “Grrrr….

  1. The only thing to add to this is that the whole “tough on crime” machismo ignores the simple and undeniable fact that marijuana’s legal status combined with its widespread use makes for a pretty lucrative black market. That politicians fail to understand that lucrative black markets inevitably lead to organized crime and widespread violence is simply incomprehensible to me; instead they seem to think that people who seek to make profits in black markets are just random “bad seeds” that would engage in violence otherwise… to think otherwise would be to accept that politicians are fallible.


  2. Nits to pick, but only a few: You cite broad popular support for drug reform, and I suspect this is an accurate claim. But if Obama was asked specifically about “ending prohibition” of marijuana, then the relevant polling numbers will refer to decrim or out-and-out legalization. While support for same is growing steadily, and has recently crossed the 40% threshold in a variety of reputable polls ( ) there is certainly not a majority in favor of legalization or decrim.

    Can you provide a poll that shows a broad majority favoring a policy reevaluation? I would be curious to see just how the question that solicited that opinion was phrased. My suspicion is that the broad majority favor repealing the mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines known as the Rockefeller Laws (the NY State Leg. is apparently going to take that up this session). There is probably also a high (but varied) level of support for other reforms of drug policy, and a shift in spending from punishment to treatment for drug offenders.

    The landscape of the debate over marijuana is still unfavorable to those who advocate ending prohibition; knee-jerk arguments against legalization, be they moral, religious, legal or medical, continue to hold the high ground. I would love to see Obama’s response to a more nuanced question about drug policy. I’m sure he would still seek to protect against the “soft on crime” charge to which Mark’s comment alludes, but if there’s one thing our President enjoys it is the chance to offer a complex answer to a question.

    I think that a concerted effort to create a broader conversation about drug policy (rather than a limited one about marijuana decrim) would have myriad positive effects on those policies. First among these effects would be the marginalization of those who choose to chuckle dismissively about Deadheads whenever the topic comes up. Instead, the kneejerkers would find themselves the target of derision if, when invited to broad and rational debate about drug policy as a whole, they snickered and cried “patchouli.”


  3. Andrew Sullivan was complaining about this too, but I just don’t understand it … the farcical aspect of it was that something like 10-12 of the questions across various categories were related to marijuana, and this is clearly the result of ballot stuffing, a bunch of bored Digg/4chan types clicking ‘refresh’ over and over. The fact that most people would support modest decriminialization of marijuana doesn’t somehow validate the absurdity of this particular case (where marijuana was voted as one of the vital issues for the economy, etc.).


  4. I can imagine a scenario where, sixish years from now, in the middle of his second term, having managed against all odds to right the economy and extract our forces from foreign entanglements, Obama uses a few shekels of his political capital to spur on pot decriminalization (probably not straight up legalization).

    I’m an occasional marijuana smoker, and I’ve always hoped to see it out and out available, but our leaders have better things to worry about now — much better things. (Though, shit, I would love to see the constipated look on the face of social conservatives when legal weed doesn’t result in the collapse of Western civilization.)

    Finally, regarding the media, I’m bed bound today and I’ve been watching MSNBC since 8 or 9 this morning. The issue is getting much fairer treatment than I imagined. Though it IS MSNBC . . .


  5. Decriminalization will happen locally first for a long time. So long as the Feds keep their damn noses out of our business on a local/state level we’ll be fine. Eventually it will become widespread enough that it will be nationally decriminalized as well.


  6. It seems like part of the “sneering” that came from Obama at least was that there was this obsessive effort to tie Marijuana legalization with pressing present issues as a way to stimulate the economy or fix the budget deficit, which frankly is an absurd way to frame the question.

    That they brought up the question of decriminalization in this manner deserves I think proper scorn, whatever your position on the issue. Yes the present prohibition is a disastrous policy, but when you make off the cuff connections to economic stimulus (seriously? I mean check out just how dominating marijuana issues were in all of the question categories…this is a bit ridiculous) or other near non-sequitors, I think you deserve all the scorn you get.

    Until you frame the terms of the debate in ways that can be taken as an actual policy reexamination on the merits of the policy itself, rather than some too clever by half “backdoor” reasoning for examination, I think it’s going to get this sort of response.

    I agree with E.D. fundamentally that it’ll be a regional decriminalization, and so far Obama seems ameniable to that. But this sort of circumvention method of trying to short-cut debate and instead put a different spin on decriminalization by putting it as part of economic policy? Stupid and counter-productive.

    If you just want the the right to smoke without criminal penalty (and frankly, most of the people who’d been framing this question this way are unlikely to be recipients of jail sentences for pot possession) then just say so.

    Don’t pussy-foot around it by cloaking it in job creation or tax revenue. It’s dishonest and frankly it makes the activity seem worse than it actually is.


  7. Except that the issue of taxing marijuana actually is a meaningful solution to state budget shortfalls. California, a state in dire financial distress, could make billions and billions on marijuana taxes. Why is that somehow a distraction or a non sequitur? It’s not. You just want to dismiss something without actually arguing the merits. Well, sorry– there are states that could have their short term budget crises legitimately improved by marijuana taxation.

    And you guys can take your incrementalism and go fuck yourselves. Tell the people rotting in jail, or those who have had their property taken in a drug seizure without trial or due process, that we should just wait, and that it’s no big deal. That’s yuppie logic and I’ve had it.


  8. Don’t pussy-foot around it by cloaking it in job creation or tax revenue. It’s dishonest and frankly it makes the activity seem worse than it actually is.

    That’s such a stupid thing to say. Lots of marijuana advocates don’t smoke; see the major benefits in taxation or freeing up prison cells and prison dollars; see the benefit of hemp over cotton and so on and so forth. Like me.


  9. Freddie, I’d like to actually see you quantify the “Billions and Billions of Dollars in Tax Revenue” assertion. Studies? Numbers? Really? Billions and billions? How much does California pull in in cigarette tax revenues? Somewhere in the 1 billion range? Can you honestly suggest with a straight face that legalizing marijuana will instantly bring a revenue several times that amount to California?

    Re: On using the ballot stuffed “economic issues” measurement as a serious argument for decriminalization.

    Are you fucking serious?

    The quickest way to get it mocked is to have a bunch of people ballot stuff an open online initiative in this way and make its eem like a bunch of yuppy assholes aiming for their pot fix, rather than a societal problem by bringing it up in multiple areas.

    The war on drugs IS a problem, and there’s no quicker way to obscure that problem by making it into one about the arguments of whether or not pot is a revenue generator or not. Get off your high horse of outrage a moment and think through what the actual image of this specific set of questions and this specific context does to the actual messaging of resolving and fixing the whole issue.

    Yuppy logic?

    This whole fucking set of questions that were chain added to this open online townhall meeting is more yuppy logic than pointing out that in the end, by trying to make it seem like “Pot legalization is the ANSWER TO EVERYTHING” type absurdity undermines the basic underlying argument that the prohibition measures against drugs A. aren’t working, B. are extraordinarily socially destructive, by making it seem like a bunch of online toke heads making up excuses to get it legalized IS the absurdity.

    Where the hell is your outrage on that?

    When you take an unserious stand and treat this like another fucking internet meme, you shouldn’t be surprised when the people you’re trying to influence treat it as such.

    How is this any different than the absurd “going galt” rubbish and “tea party” bullshit the looney right is pushing at the same time? You think anyone’s taking them anymore seriously either?


  10. if there’s one thing our President enjoys it is the chance to offer a complex answer to a question.

    Why, then, didn’t he do so? When will he have a better opportunity? He was, during this forum, in front of the very audience that wants to hear such an answer. And it’s not like he didn’t have an opportunity to prepare a nuanced answer; the questions have been public for quite some time now.

    I agree with Freddie’s anger at the derision shown by the President in blithely dismissing this as a non-issue — a joke, actaully. If he had said “I don’t think that’s a good idea, and here’s why…”, well, then, I would have been disappointed, but not angry.

    And incidentally, I wonder how funny Obama would find this issue if he had been caught, convicted, and incarcerated for drug possession back during his partying days. A brilliant legal and political career derailed before it even started, all because a guy liked to smoke a little weed (or whatever). Hilarious!


  11. I confess to not having watched the video yet, Jake, but from descriptions of the event in comments here I suspect Obama wasn’t laughing at the specific idea of decrim/legalization. If the most-voted questions frequently found ways to tie marijuana policy into economic or foreign or immigration policy, doesn’t that get funny pretty fast? “Okay, Mr. President, hopefully that’s our last pot question for the night; on to your budget! Dan from Boise asks, ‘[insert budget question contrived as legalization tie-in]?'”

    Seriously, you wouldn’t laugh at that the third time it happened?

    Okay, but even assuming that this wasn’t how it happened, you ask: “When will he have a better opportunity?”

    After the economy begins growing again. After we get a few thousand more soldiers out of harm’s way. After the middle class begins expanding again. After “American” stops being code for “jingoistic, hypocritical greed” around the world.

    The audience for that event was much bigger than that room full of people, as we’re all demonstrating with our comments here and as the TV newsfolk proved today in reporting it. Like it or not, marijuana legalization has a stigma attached to it, and the President has too many fights to win with adversaries who would love some social-conservative outrage as an excuse to oppose him. A time, and a place.


  12. Alan:

    I’m not sure what to make of your explanation. It certainly was not the case that he was asked repeated questions relating to marijuana. Although marijuana factored into many of the top-rated questions, the moderator didn’t ask any of them, and actually the President interjected specifically to address marijuana. (read the transcript — I’m too lazy to link it but it’s on

    The fact is: Obama made fun of the issue itself, as in “Gee, see what happens when you take suggestions from the internet? Lots of stoners log on (they’ve got nothing better to do, right?) and vote for pot questions. Ha ha. Let’s move on to more serious things.” That’s not exactly what he said of course, but it’s a fair paraphrase. Clearly the upshot was that this is not a serious issue, but rather something that deserves mockery instead of a reasoned, serious answer.

    As regards the audience, yes I’m aware that it was more than the people in the room. It was people watching on the web (an “online town hall”); that is, the same people who had been voting on the questions (i.e., voting the marijuana questions to the top). In other words, as I first said, the perfect audience for articulating a well-considered policy position on this issue.

    But of course, as you point out, there are more important things for the administration to be doing. Marijuana can wait until all other pressing problems have been solved and until there is no more “stigma” attached to it (meaning: never). Meanwhile, our prisons are overflowing, and many of the incarcerated people are non-violent drug offenders. Disproportionately poor and minority, I would add. Locked away in cages for consensual crimes. To those folks, I’m guessing, the question has a bit of immediacy and lacks any humor.


  13. I think the key point that seems to be understated is the fact that the legalization of marijuana would come with a significant amount of fatalistic baggage for any politician who wishes to push it through the legislature, whatever the reasoning may be behind it. The collegial atmosphere in Congress is similar to what you might see in the TV show Mad Men. The image of the stolid, hard working gentleman of the 1950s is severely undercut by sympathizing with those who just want to chill and smoke a joint.

    Until these social barriers and taboos are broken down, the legalization of marijuana will still be tantamount to the acceptance of counterculture into mainstream American society. Then again, I think we would all be surprised at how fast the walls would come crashing down if Congress gave it the a-ok. Hopefully for the stoners, they can solve this catch-22.


  14. Pot could be addressed in a very simple way: Allow people to grow 10-15 plants, and allow people to give away up to an ounce. This way, people who want to smoke could grow for themselves. People who can’t grow could arrange with someone who can grow. The state could charge say $100 bucks for a permit to grow. In medical states, a co-op could introduce patients and growers.

    It would still be illegal to sell pot, or to possess/transport large amounts. The drug war apparatus will not have to change too much.

    The government should not sell and tax pot. Neither the government nor the market has any use in this situation. Pot does not need to be “manufactured” or “processed.”

    It is a plant… We have a right to cultivate cannabis for our personal use.

    My point is that this could be done without great upheaval in our laws and without some new industry pushing pot on kids like they did with cigarettes.


  15. Jake:

    Wait for the stigma to ease a bit– obviously, it will never disappear. And his audience is even larger than the people watching on the web– it’s CNN producers who have 24 hours of “news” to program every day; it’s RedState, and Michelle Malkin, and DINOs like Ben Nelson and the Blue Dog caucus, who salivate at the opportunity to chastise Obama publicly as a way of shoring up their moderate credentials. In the process, they make Obama’s positions seem like the most liberal out there; this has a couple of really dangerous effects. First, it takes more-progressive policy approaches off the table. Second, it lets Congress and the punditry attack Obama for taking the country off into radical liberal pinko hippie territory (which is, of course, bullshit– so far he has behaved as a barely-left-of-center President, and hasn’t even met with the Progressive Caucus at the White House yet!).

    I do not suggest that there need be zero negative associations with marijuana before serious politicians treat the idea of legalization seriously. I would instead posit that, at a time when headless corpses are appearing on both sides of our southern border every day and the juries (popular, political, scientific) are still very much out on marijuana use, the political costs of advocating legalization or decrim at the federal level are far too high. If you want to demand greater political courage from your leadership, I would applaud that, but not every senseless charge into machine gun fire is San Juan Hill. (hey look, an inappropriate war metaphor!)

    Okay. It seems to me that the crux of this post, and of Jake’s and my back-n-forth here, is about laughter. The idea that a reevaluation of marijuana policy is laughable is most certainly offensive. As you point out, the people imprisoned for possession aren’t amused, and shouldn’t be. So while it’s one thing to be political about what you say in front of cameras (a lesson well-learned by Obama after the “bitter” kerfuffle during the primary), it’s another to be dismissive. So let’s look at the transcript. The passage in question, near as I can tell:

    “Three point five million people 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 — (laughter) — and job creation. And I don’t know what this says about the online audience — (laughter) — but I just want — I don’t want people to think that — this was a fairly popular question; we want to make sure that it was answered. The answer is, no, I don’t think that is a good strategy — (laughter) — to grow our economy. (Applause.)”

    I no longer think your paraphrase above is fair.

    He’s pretty dismissive, alright, but it makes sense to me. The idea that legalization would help the economy is very, very difficult to prove (although not difficult to argue). The central effort by the administration thusfar has been to emphasize the steady hand we are blessed to have at the tiller. The President has displayed incredible message discipline, because he knows he has to sell the public on his big economic ideas. If he appears to be grasping at straws (which, face it, is how even the most nuanced advocacy of legalization would appear) then he loses the confidence &c that he has been building.

    Now, from the LA Times: “In fact, the top six questions in the popular “Budget” category, as well as top questions in the “Health Care Reform” and “Green Jobs” categories addressed pot and drug legalization.”

    I hate to take the LAT’s word for anything, but if this was indeed the case then I think my point from above applies– he was chuckling not at the idea of drug policy reform, but at the online community’s determination to get him to talk pot. He was being asked, essentially, “Step 1: Legal pot. Step 2: ??? Step 3: Profit.” And that’s a laughable question, it really is.

    If the legalization crowd wants a real answer, ask a real question that isn’t duckable, isn’t laughable, isn’t silly: “There are [x] Americans in prison right now on Marijuana charges. These nonviolent offenders cost taxpayers [y] per day to house. Meanwhile, marijuana prohibition creates a black market that is increasingly violent. Do you believe the federal government should alter it’s policy toward marijuana?”

    Don’t make it a contrived question about legal pot stimulating a bad economy. Don’t hitch the legalization issue to the issue du-jour. It is it’s own meaningful issue area, and if questioners don’t treat it as such they damage their own cause.


  16. This will be much shorter, I promise.

    The more I think about this, the more clever I think Obama’s being. By laughing off the idea, he created a major opportunity for legalization advocates to pipe up (heh) and he probably gave them a bigger audience. Policy is a big tug-of-war, and Obama’s laughter creates an opportunity to try to drag him to the left by presenting thoughtful arguments supported by evidence that legalization should be taken seriously in economic terms. No idea if this was his intent, it probably was not, but there it is: opportunity.


  17. Alan: fair points, good discussion. My main pushback would be against the criticism related to the shoehorning of the marijuana issue into policy discussions where it doesn’t belong.

    While I do believe there are good arguments to be made that the right kind of legalization scheme would be a significant fiscal boost to (though obviously not a cure-all for) federal, state, and local budgets (savings from cessation of enforcement/incarceration efforts + increased tax revenue), we can leave that for another time and place. But what I want to say is that while, like you, apparently, I haven’t seen the set-up for the voting/questions/categories, but my sense from the reporting is that the marijuana activists essentially used a kitchen-sink approach in bringing up the issue. And, unfortunately, this allowed Obama to do something fairly disingenuous: he cherry-picked the most easily dismissable context (“is marijuana a good strategy to grow our economy?”) in order to portray the issue in a silly light. This was unfair, and has the effect of (somewhat) spoiling my idea of Obama as a thoughtful, “different” kind of politician. Oh well.

    As to your other points, they mostly relate to the idea that coming out with an attackable position on this issue will tend to harm Obama’s larger agenda. I don’t doubt that you are right, but I’m not a Democrat (and probably not much of a “progressive”, truth be told), and being kind of a cafeteria-style liberal, I don’t find that argument particularly compelling, personally, though I definitely understand why others would.

    Anyway, thanks for the good discussion.


  18. Jake: Back atcha re: good discussion. I, for one, do find those fiscal arguments that you hint at to be pretty compelling. And yeah, I’m caught up in trying to guess what political calculus may be operative here. It is interesting to see Obama lay down a bunt when given the opportunity to be the kind of transformative political figure for whom many of us voted.


  19. Sorry about that Think non toxic, you are just slightly off. Hemp is Cannabis Rudalis. Sativa can be some of the finest bud grown and prized for it’s high. Rudalis is commonly known as ditch weed and worthless as smoke. Then there is Cannabis Indica, which is made into hash. To summarize, there are three types, Sativa, Indica, and Rudalis. No big deal but the stoners will get a kick out of it. Wonder what cooking with Sativa based oil would be like!


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