These pages have already seen an extended conversation on whether or not a liberal should feel comfortable supporting the reelection of President Obama. I don’t wish to reopen those wounds. Instead, I hope to explore Mr. Obama’s decision to crack down on California medical marijuana dispensaries, reflecting on what this policy change means for those 5C students who partake in that most dreaded and addictive of drugs.
I should start with a little background. Sixteen states and even Washington DC have legalized medical marijuana. According to a January 2010 poll conducted by ABC News, some 81 percent of the American public supports medical marijuana; it is certainly well within the mainstream. Indeed, I would characterize opposition to medical marijuana as close to—if not on—the fringe of acceptable political discourse; the trend lines on public opinion are pretty clear. Estimates of medical marijuana users are difficult to make; California’s branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) estimates that there are at least 750,000 patients in California, and some signs indicate that these numbers err on the conservative side.
Way back in 2007, then-President Bush threatened dispensary owners with legal action, but nothing ever materialized. In the case of our dear President Obama, it has been clear for some time that he does not take the issue of marijuana very seriously; enterprising readers can find YouTube footage of Mr. Obama sharing a chortle about the issue with a crowd of well-heeled supporters instead of responding to the substance of the question. Instead, he mocked the online group that voted on the questions to which he should respond. Nevertheless, he had made campaign promises in the past that he had no intention of cracking down on the use of medical marijuana at the state level.
This broken promise makes the California Crackdown all the more reprehensible. In early October, the Obama administration sent letters to dispensary owners, threatening them with property seizures and other measures if they did not cease the sale of marijuana within 45 days. This has produced the intended effect, as dispensaries in the Claremont area have been closed down.
The crackdown was instigated by California’s federal attorneys rather than by any public pronunciation from on high (get it?), and so an Obama apologist might be tempted to argue that the man himself is not culpable. Observers with a bit more political savvy should realize that such a strategy—using underlings to deflect political blame—is not exactly a political innovation. The bottom line is that the attorneys are part of his administration, and the buck stops with Mr. Obama.
Other Obama fanboys and fangirls, a bit wiser, will be tempted to rely instead on the claim that Mr. Obama is merely being a cunning politician, trying to lure independent voters back into the fold with a little centrist fairy dust. This argument falls flat on its face in several respects.
First, independent voters—to the extent that they are not a political myth—care primarily about the economy. Not only will they be unlikely to have any knowledge of Mr. Obama’s drug policy, they won’t even care. Meanwhile, the destruction of a multibillion dollar industry will reverberate throughout the broader economy, doing Obama no political favors.
Second, this move will be extremely unpopular with those legions of (former?) supporters who will be essential to Mr. Obama’s reelection hopes: liberals. Even more than the broader electorate, liberals support medical marijuana and full legalization. While no one policy will annihilate liberal support in its entirety, each slap in the face that his base endures will reduce their enthusiasm. Base enthusiasum is crucial. If pro-marijuana advocates lose enthusiasm, most will still vote for Mr. Obama over the any of the motley crew that might be his opposition, so there is only a limited threat in terms of vote-withholding. In Mr. Obama’s 2008 election, one could argue that enthusiasm was the deciding factor, with hordes of devotees and disciples pounding the pavement and working the phonebanks. The base will still vote for Mr. Obama, but a national campaign requires volunteers to succeed.
Finally, the electability claim fails based on relative popularity. As noted earlier, the vast majority of the public supports medical marijuana. Even more interestingly, the most recent Gallup poll on the topic presented a 50-46 percent victory for legalizing marijuana entirely—a record high. Considering that President Obama’s job approval is only 43 percent, one would almost advise that he grab on to the coattails of marijuana legalization in the hope that it will push him over the top. Perhaps campus stoners should be grateful that Mr. Obama has failed to embrace marijuana; he might drag marijuana’s polling numbers into the ditch along with him.
Admittedly, after thinking through what I thought were the clearest defenses for the policy change—innocence and electability—I am at a loss as to what our president (a former partaker himself) is doing. So I will wait for some bright Obamaphile to enlighten me in the comments and instead ponder what the crackdown will mean for Claremont students.
I suspect that many of the Claremont students who partake in the consumption of illegal drugs (law enforcement officials, never fear; only four or five deviants at the 5Cs would ever consider commiting such heinous, victimless crimes. You may continue to unevenly enforce drug laws in ways that unfairly target and oppress underprivileged communities) have, being intelligent folks, reflected on the moral implications of their actions. I don’t mean the puritanical objections to substance abuse that your more traditional acquaintances might espouse; rather, I mean the real moral dilemma caused when one pays cash for drugs obtained via the black market. That is exactly what this policy change means for drug users; instead of purchasing marijuana from legal, respectable businesspeople with a clean conscience, the drug user must return to funding murderous, evil, despicable drug cartels who are the primary alternative source. Does this difference matter to Claremont students? Are drug users entitled to blame Mr. Obama for this, or are they responsible as well?
I am also reminded of the proposition to legalize marijuana from last fall. The proposition was only four percent short of passage; how many Claremont supporters of the initiative worked, volunteered, and donated to achieve its passage—and did they work hard enough? Similar propositions will undoubtedly reoccur in the future. I think that those Claremont students that support legalized marijuana would do well to forgo national politics. As in many other arenas, Mr. Obama (and the broader national Democratic establishment) has disappointed. If marijuana reform is a priority for student voters, I recommend that they focus their efforts on local and state initiatives. Force the argument into the public sphere as often as success requires—it is one that reformers can, will, and must win.