By M. Allister Greene
In the Presidential Election of 2008, many cannabis using, and canna-friendly, voters elected Barrack Obama on the train of hope and change. Some of these voters expected an over-night reform of laws, and assumed that legalization of cannabis was soon to follow. Obama who has never really denied his use of cannabis when he was younger, and even has one of the most famous polarizing quotes from the responses of cannabis use from any other past presidents, said before and during his campaign trail: “When I was a kid I inhaled frequently. That was the point.” Which compared to his predecessors—both Republican and Democrat—on the topic of cannabis use, he is far more open and honest to most of the voting public. Now many of those same voters feel as if he has broken every promise he had made towards cannabis users and supporters. How many of these promises did he make, and how has Obama changed when it comes to cannabis and in his role in how America views this plant that has played a significant role in shaping the country to what it is today?
Even before trying out for the job, Obama as quoted before was not afraid to admit his use of cannabis, often with a laugh that most people felt before the election was one both playing down the importance of the moralized drug-free life to be successful, and almost a warmth to the memory of passing a joint around. This honesty was bold and fresh to the memory of his soon-to-be counter parts from both parties, whereas Bill Clinton seriously and nervously was famously quoted as saying: “When I was in England, I experimented with marijuana a time or two, and I didn’t like it, and I didn’t inhale, and I never tried again.”
Clinton left a taste of judgment that had not changed much from Ronald Reagan who was often quoted saying: “I now have absolute proof that smoking even one marijuana cigarette is equal in brain damage to being on Bikini Island during an H-bomb blast.” The reefer-madness profanity of the past propaganda in the war on drugs made a difference in how the general public has seen the laws around cannabis, both for medical and recreational usage, for decades now. But as the lies got more bold, and the truth became more evident, the public’s eye became able to view what had been a path with no road signs, become an intersection with the direction towards decriminalization and legalization lighting up in a neon state of existence—but policy surrounding the laws in the U.S. are still slowly moving.
Before any of the past century’s prohibitions came into view, the politicians of our country had a very different viewpoint on cannabis and hemp, and its role in society and politics. Many users of cannabis in this country have come to learn the fact that even our first president felt that this plant needed to be used to all of its advantages. When he put his feather into his inkwell to inscribe into history the statement “Make the most of the Indian hemp seed, and sow it everywhere!” (George Washington, The Writings of George Washington. Volume 33, page 270 (Library of Congress), 1794.) In his own words, he became a future advocate for the cannabis law reform movement.
Even the thought of the government controlling what goes into our bodies became a topic of our third president’s writing when Jefferson wrote: “If people let government decide what foods they eat and what medicines they take, their bodies will soon be in as sorry a state as are the souls of those who live under tyranny,” (Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia. Query XVII, 1781- 1785.) Even the past presidents knew a truth about cannabis and the rights that a human being has to their own body would be constantly playing a role in our country’s policies and culture.
During his campaign, Obama was seen as leaning more towards decriminalization, and had a respect of state medical laws, in the drug policy part of his platform. In an early stop on his campaign, Obama stated: “I don’t think that should be a top priority of us, raiding people who are using […] medical marijuana. With all the things we’ve got to worry about, and our Justice Department should be doing, that probably shouldn’t be a high priority.” (June 2, 2007, town hall meeting in Laconia, New Hampshire.) He continued on to say at a future event that, “My attitude is if the science and the doctors suggest that the best palliative care, and the way to relieve pain and suffering, is medical marijuana then that’s something I’m open to because there’s no difference between that and morphine when it comes to just giving people relief from pain. But I want to do it under strict guidelines. I want it prescribed in the same way that other painkillers or palliative drugs are prescribed.” (November 24, 2007 town hall meeting in Iowa.) Many people cheered for this approach as the country continues to see a battle between state rights and federal laws. This leads into the question of who runs the country—the policies, companies, politicians, or the people? And was Obama going to be the one to end these disputes in the legal system?
Obama even made his stance feel righteous during the campaign when he said, “The Justice Department going after sick individuals using [marijuana] as a palliative instead of going after serious criminals makes no sense.” (July 21, 2007, town hall meeting in Manchester, New Hampshire.) This political outcry was fitting with the need of many voters, who felt that people should have a say in their healthcare treatments or felt that cannabis should be used and respected with the honor that Washington and Jefferson held to the plant. As well as those wanting to see state’s rights respected or a door to legalization open just from his words, like a spell unlocking a gate to a woods growing a lot of ganja.
When Obama took office, cannabis activists expected to see these statements implemented with people like Attorney General Eric Holder answering questions during a Feb. 2009 press release after being asked about raids that were already continuing weeks after Obama took office: “What the president said during the campaign, you’ll be surprised to know, will be consistent with what we’ll be doing here in law enforcement[…] What he said during the campaign is now American policy.” Even as he said these words, Holder’s voice and face remained smug with a tone that the DEA will continue to raid and prosecute at their discretion. With Obama leaving Michele Leonhart, a Bush-holdover, as the Acting Administrator of the DEA, later to be confirmed in Dec. 2010, these raids have continued.
As of Oct. 2009 they did put these statements down in a memo, but like most office memos even with the Oval Office’s seal of approval, it reached the trash can of the minds of the Justice Department and the DEA, as they continue to raid medical cannabis outlets and patients. Since the memo was issued, 87 raids have happened, with almost half taking place in Mar. and Apr. of 2011. Even using raids as political kindling and unlawful pressure, towards many, including the governor of Washington as cannabis law reforms were being discussed or enacted under the will of the voters. These raids are still being conducted under the order of the DEA, sometimes at the same rate as past administrations. The Bush and Clinton administrations spent money and time breaking down the laws in court to get the ability to do more raids with less evidence, but for the most part the Obama administration has not.
One promise that Obama made that he has kept comes from his interview during Apr. 2008. When asked about federal laws that go after doctors that recommend cannabis to patients in states that have medical cannabis laws he said: “I would not punish doctors if it’s prescribed in a way that is appropriate. That may require some changes in Federal law. I will tell you, you know I want to be honest with you whether or not I want to use a whole lot of political capital on that issue.[small chuckle] When we are trying to get health care faster and the war in Iraq […] The likelihood of that being high on my list is not likely.” He told the truth there—he has not spent time to change those laws yet. As many people predicted, he was not going to go for cannabis law reform during his first term.
The shock has been more about the promise that he did break on keeping discussion open. The first time since he took office this past Jan., he answered questions on youtube.com submitted about cannabis by an online audience. As a community that has been credited as being one of the driving forces of his election, a few years back during the first online audience question and answer press release, where after avoiding giving any real answer about cannabis law reform, he made a comment about “not knowing what this says about the online community,” making many voters feel betrayed after the work they did to get Obama elected. He did, this year, give more of an answer on the top topic (for the third year in a row) of cannabis. He even admitted that discussion is needed, but many other people felt like he was still saying “not yet.” Some people think he will start on the drug war, and the reform of cannabis laws, only if he gets elected to a second term. But will the same voters who elected him, because they thought he would work to end the War on Drugs, vote for him again? This may all depend on who he is running against, or if the cannabis activists and supporters think they can trust him to even try to help the movement and change the laws that hold way too many people without the medicine they prefer, and keep them out of jail.