In a recent town hall meeting, President Obama, when asked about the legalization of marijuana, nervously laughed and briefly dismissed the idea, which had been advanced as a way to help pull out of our current economic doldrums. In doing so, the President was following conventional wisdom when it comes to marijuana -- that to openly support reform or repeal of harsh anti-pot laws is tantamount to political suicide.
The President's nervousness around this touchy issue -- particularly in view of his admitted youthful marijuana use -- is completely understandable. But I don't think it's news to anyone that the political landscape is changing, and changing rapidly. Especially when it comes to marijuana, there is a huge shift underway in public perception -- one that will eventually and inevitably result in legalization. We are nearing that tipping point.
Olympic swimming star Michael Phelps' recent indiscretion is one of the catalysts that propelled marijuana to the front burner. (In case you've been under a rock, Phelps was photographed hitting a marijuana bong at a party.)
The marijuana community united in support of Phelps when he was unceremoniously dumped by corporate sponsor Kellogg's, and beyond that, a lot of people who hadn't given much thought to marijuana suddenly were wondering, "Hmm... If pot is really so bad, then how did Michael Phelps win all those gold medals?"
But there's a lot more to the story than that. The issue of marijuana law reform deserves serious consideration, because it has a big impact on both individual lives and families, and on law enforcement priorities and budgets, along with overcrowded jails and prisons.
No Time To Wait
I've seen the idea batted around that perhaps the President is biding his time. According to this line of thought, "controversial" things like marijuana reform will have to wait until Obama's presumed second term, when American presidents have traditionally dealt with issues that otherwise might have come back to haunt them when they ran for re-election.
I think of myself as a patient man, but there's more to this scenario than patiently waiting for politicians to lead. Most important is the fact that, contrary to what many believe, lots of people are still being busted for pot. In 2007, more than 872,000(!) people were arrested for marijuana -- an all-time high. The vast majority of those cases -- 775,000 -- were for simple possession. If we're supposed to wait four more years for marijuana law reform, that means, at current rates, almost 3.5 million more Americans will have been arrested for marijuana before anything changes. More than 3 million of those arrests will have been for possession alone. That's just unacceptable.
Opponents of the war on marijuana -- or the "marijuana vote," if you will -- voted overwhelmingly for Obama in last November's election. While most of us are under no illusion that we'll receive any special treatment, what we do ask is to at least be taken seriously.
We believe that the issues of privacy, the erosion of civil liberties, jail and prison overcrowding, and civil forfeiture are crucially serious -- and the war on marijuana and its users directly and hugely impacts all of these concerns.
But while all of these issues are serious to any caring, informed citizen, none of them has the immediate and visceral impact of the most important issue of all: We believe it is wrong to jail people for using marijuana. Period. The punishment just doesn't fit the supposed "crime."
The United States already has a higher proportion of its population behind bars than any nation on Earth. Forget Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran; we've got them all beat, when it comes to keeping people in cages. Do we really need to exacerbate this problem by locking up people for pot?