The politics of Presidential pot statements

December 20, 2012
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Note: This post is about the dirty underbelly of political maneuvering regarding federal cannabis politics. If you want to believe that people don’t make statements for political purposes, skip this post.

As everyone knows, President Obama made a statement of factual emptiness to Barbara Walters. In it, he completely failed to address the critical thing about the Washington/Colorado votes (distribution) and focused on the portion that the federal government could never actually do (arrest users).

You can bet that every part of what he said was analyzed in advance — not to clarify policy, but rather to provide maximum political benefit (least amount of pissing off of contributors and voters with differing agendas). So he said nothing in a way that sounded vaguely pleasing.

This was an attempt by the President to eat his cake and have it too. Act Presidential without acting.

So what should reformers do? Let him get away with it? Of course not. If he’s going to be vague and not define the status, then reformers should define it for him. This keeps him from getting away with avoiding political damage while leaving policy in unacceptable limbo.

So if he won’t define it…

[Brad] Pitt released a joint statement along with fellow The House I Live In executive producers Danny Glover, John Legend and Russell Simmons, stating, “President Obama should be commended for expressing the will of the people in Colorado and Washington. Our jails are overburdened with nonviolent drug users in this country, too often serving harsher sentences than violent criminals. This defies all common and economic sense. The President’s statement reflects a saner and more sensible drug policy, and a step away from the decades long failed war on drugs.”

So, what’s the President supposed to do? Walk back his non-statement? Say “Oh, I really didn’t mean to give the impression that I favored a saner and more sensible drug policy. I really want the same oppression we’ve always had. I was just saying that because they told me we need Colorado for the mid-terms.” The most they can do is have some former “official” get as much opposition press as possible with no confirmation from the White House.

When enough reform organizations and media pick up on this meme, the conventional wisdom in the population will be that President Obama has pledged not to interfere in Colorado and Washington.

Then, when and if the feds come down on Colorado and Washington operations, it will appear as though the President has gone back on his word. That is, quite frankly, the price that the President pays for not being willing to be forthcoming or transparent about policy in the first place.

Clearly I haven’t been doing my part in this maneuver (this post is a prime example of that), but I understand the politics of it.

This is, of course, not the first time this process has occurred. The Holder memo regarding medical marijuana was a prime example.

I always get a kick out of Mark Kleiman’s surprise at the inability of reformers to understand the memo…

When Holder said that, marijuana advocates nationwide, and specifically the marijuana industry in California, gleefully misinterpreted him as having declared open season. They then purported to have terribly hurt feelings when DEA and the U.S. Attorneys did in fact go after large-scale criminal enterprises in the “medical marijuana” business. Prominent pot advocates bitterly critized Obama (but never the much more hawkish Romney) this year’s campaign.

There may be some advocates who actually misinterpreted the memo, but most of them are far smarter than that, and they realized that the void left by the vagueness of the memo was an opportunity. By filling that void with their “interpretation,” they changed the conventional wisdom and actually made Obama look like the bad guy when the DEA charged in as they always do. There were some advocates who took the ultimate risk in this political game and have ended up in prison.

But the result is that public views have changed and the President was damaged politically by it — factors that may have helped usher in this new era of reform.

And of course reformers didn’t bash Romney. He wasn’t President. If he had won, they would have done so immediately. Bashing Romney would be the equivalent of giving Obama a pass for his drug policies. Reformers need to make it clear that there is a cost to trying to have it both ways.

Now when you see a piece praising President Obama for his bold drug policy, you’ll understand what may be behind it.

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Pete Guither is the editor of drugwarrant.com

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