Monday, February 11, 2008

Paul Krassner: Barack Obama and the Pot Laws

During a debate in the Democratic presidential primaries campaign, MSNBC moderator Tim Russert, the claymation journalist, asked the candidates who opposed decriminalization of marijuana to raise their hands. Barack Obama hesitantly raised his hand halfway before quickly lowering it again.

However, in January 2004, when Obama was running for the Senate, he told Illinois college students that he supported eliminating criminal penalties for marijuana use or possession.

“I think the war on drugs has been a failure, and I think we need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws,” he said during a debate at Northwestern University. “But I’m not somebody who believes in legalization of marijuana.”

Was Obama now having a time-travel debate with himself?

When the Washington Times confronted Obama with that statement on a video of the 2004 debate, his campaign offered two explanations in less than 24 hours.

First, a spokesperson said that Obama had “always” supported decriminalizing marijuana, that he misunderstood the question when he raised his hand, and reiterated Obama’s opposition to full legalization, adding that an Obama administration would “review drug sentences to see where we can be smarter on crime and reduce the blind and counterproductive sentencing to non-violent offenders.”

But, after the Times posted the video on its website, the Obama campaign made a fast U-turn and declared that he does not support eliminating criminal penalties for marijuana possession and use--thereby rejecting both decriminalization and legalization. What exactly is the difference? The definitions, according to Pot Culture: The A-Z Guide to Stoner Language & Life by Shirley Halperin and Steve Bloom, with a foreword by Tommy Chong:

Decriminalization: When laws governing marijuana are changed to reduce the penalties for possession of small quantities (usually below an ounce) to non-criminal status. The first state to decriminalize was Oregon in 1973, followed by California, New York, Ohio, Nebraska, Minnesota, Colorado, Mississippi, Alaska, North Carolina and Maine.”

Legalization: The complete repeal of marijuana prohibition and removal of all criminal penalties for its use, sale, transport and cultivation. The Netherlands is the only country in the world with such a policy.”

Ron Fisher at NORML told me, “Decriminalization is the elimination of criminal penalties for the possession of marijuana, usually by replacing them with a fine (similar to a speeding ticket). Full legalization is a more complex issue that involves U.S. treaties, as well as the law. Legalization would be characterized by taxation and regulation of marijuana. This is NORML's ultimate goal, but we work for decrim in the meantime for the sake of the 830,000 Americans arrested on cannabis charges each year.”

And, according to medical marijuana activist Lanny Swerdlow, “Whether Senator Obama has changed his position or not, if he obtains the Democratic nomination for president, then marijuana decriminalization will certainly become an issue in the campaign--maybe a major issue. I’m sure the Republicans will use Obama’s videotaped statement supporting decriminalization and will try to paint him as soft on crime, sending the wrong message to children and all the baggage that goes with it. In this day and age, I think that could very well backfire as I really believe that most Americans are not aware, let alone support, ensnaring 830,000 citizens in the criminal justice system for marijuana-prohibition violations at a cost to taxpayers of between 10 and 20 billion dollars a year.”

Indeed, a CNN/Time-Warner poll shows that 76% of Americans agree with Obama’s original position, not to mention the 48 million who smoked pot in 2007.

The Progressive Review quotes an old classmate of Obama explaining the meaning of chooming: “That's what we called smoking marijuana. To ‘choom’ meant to get high, to smoke pot. I never heard the word used anywhere else, but Punahou kids had access to the very best pot available.” He and Obama were in the group of students who smoked marijuana, and members of the choom group did so both on and off campus. The irony is that, had Obama been arrested then, he might never have risen to his current status.

Review publisher Sam Smith tells a story that underscores the hypocrisy of political pandering that continues to allow unjust laws to turn tokers into criminals:

“Early in the Clinton administration your editor had dinner with, among others, a high White House official - a lawyer. The conversation turned to marijuana. The lawyer said that numerous staffers had asked how they should respond to FBI queries on the matter. The official’s reply was that they should remember that they would only be in the White House for a short while but the FBI files would be there forever. And what if friends or relatives actually saw them using pot? The White House lawyer’s response: ‘If you can't look an FBI agent straight in the eye and tell him they were wrong, you don't belong here.’”

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