By now you must have heard that President Obama “addressed” the question of marijuana decriminalization in his town hall meeting last week by, basically, laughing at those who propose it. A quick glance at the mainstream news blogs reveals that this strategy offended many people, including lots of non-users who favor decriminalization. While it didn’t offend me, it did irritate me, and given how strongly I supported Obama’s election (and continue to support his presidency), this suggests that he has some serious political fence-mending to do.
What bothered so many liberals and libertarians was not the specific position he took, which was very narrowly – and no doubt carefully – focused on the question of whether marijuana legalization would be a good way to grow the economy. Rather, it was his failure to address the decriminalization issue head on. According to NORML, in 2005 there were 786,545 arrests for violations of marijuana laws, and 88% of those were merely for possession or use. That’s a huge number of lives disrupted for indulging in an activity that, by almost all accounts, is less harmful – both to the individual and society – than either alcohol or tobacco use (at least if you subtract the negative effects of criminalization). If you add to the ledger the negative effects of criminalization, including the profits to organized crime and the social stigma that prevents genuine addicts from seeking medical help, you can see that this is not a laughing matter at all. It’s an important moral issue.
I’m hoping that all of the negative reaction to his comment will encourage Obama to take the matter more seriously in the future. And there is some reason to hope that he will do so. After all, he didn’t really say whether he favors decriminalization or not; like the conventional politicians he lambasted during the election, he simply dodged the issue.