Pot Gardens and Strategies

Fred Gardner writes Obama Never Promised You a Pot Garden

Drug-policy-reform advocates are complaining bitterly that they have been double-crossed by Barack Obama. “What’s Behind the Obama Administration’s About Face Regarding Medical Marijuana?” asked Paul Armentano of NORML in the Huffington Post May 5.

“Obama’s Sudden, Senseless Assault on Medical Marijuana,” was the headline on a piece by Scott Morgan, associate editor of Stopthedrugwar.org. According to Morgan, “Recent months have brought about what can only be described as the rapid collapse of the Obama Administration’s support for medical marijuana.”

This is way wrong. There is nothing “sudden” or unprecedented about the DEA raids and other oppressive measures emanating from the Department of Justice. And neither Obama nor the DOJ ever expressed unambiguous support for medical marijuana. It was the reform honchos themselves who misread and misrepresented Administration policy. How could they? And why did they?

Of course it’s true that Obama and the DOJ never expressed unambiguous support for medical marijuana.

And I certainly can’t speak for the reform movement, but I know that it was clear to me that Obama and Holder had not given support for medical marijuana in their memo.

In fact, even before the full text of the memo was out (which I then posted for everyone to read and judge for themselves), I had characterized it: “based on these preliminary reports, it still amounts to little more than a well meaning, but toothless, suggestion.” I later referred to it as the memo “that puts in writing the administration policy of not interfering with state medical marijuana operations unless they feel like it.”

I realize that Fred isn’t writing about me, but rather about the large organizations that depend on funding, and he targets his criticism of their “enthusiasm” regarding the memo on the funding aspect.

Why did the pro-cannabis reformers misinterpret and misrepresent Obama Administration policy so consistently and for so long? Why did Ethan Nadelmann afix his “kosher” seal to Obama’s baloney? Wishful thinking is not a good enough excuse. Political leaders owe the rank-and-file accurate information and analysis. Obviously it is advantageous for fund-raising purposes to report success, and this was certainly a factor. But it wasn’t just their own interests that the reform honchos were advancing with false claims of Administration support.

Above all, the honchos were serving the interests of Cannabis-industry entrepreneurs eager to attract customers and investors. Starting in the fall of 2008, the line “Obama is going to let it happen,” induced countless thousands of people to visit pro-cannabis doctors and then their local dispensaries. The most successful California dispensary operators developed franchising ventures and pitched investors, using Obama’s alleged hands-off approach as part of their pitch. “Money that was sitting on the sidelines came in after the election,” is how one of them summarized the boom that continued through 2009 and well into 2010,”

Again, unlike Fred, I can’t speak for the motives behind the various organizations. I also don’t have the time to sort through various statements to determine whether Nadelmann and others actually misrepresented Holder’s memo, or whether they merely emphasized a favorable interpretation. (I did question whether Steph Sherer’s claim of victory was “good strategy,” or whether it might “lead to disappointment.”)

I can, however, provide another possible and compelling reason for reformers to have promoted the memo as something that actually has meaning.

Fred likes to point out that if you watched the Obama Administration with any closeness at all, it was obvious that significant reform was not on their agenda, that there was no real change in policy. True. And we’ve pointed that out here often.

However, the memo was real, from a political perspective.

Again, lets’ go back to my first reporting on it:

It’s interesting that the administration chose to roll this out on a Monday, and even went so far as to advance prep the AP on the story. Rather than dumping it in the trash (ie, when the White House wants to downplay a story, they release it with a bunch of other stuff on Friday afternoon to reduce the coverage), they seem to be promoting it.

The administration was putting out a memo that actually said nothing, yet they were promoting it as a major policy shift. They were looking to get political value (with their base) from doing this while not actually changing policy at all.

They wanted a freebie.

They needed to find a way to mollify an increasingly vocal and powerful marijuana movement (yeah, they noticed the town hall questions). The memo, with the Monday flourish release was their attempt to make that happen.

They knew the media would promote it as a shift in policy (they prepped the AP!) So if reformers came out and said “there’s nothing there,” they wouldn’t be believed. The press would control the message for a few days and then forget it, and the administration could go back to doing the same old thing.

But the reformers jumped in to reinforce (not create) the perception that the memo did something real (and remember, in politics, the perception of reality can sometimes be as powerful as reality).

Even though the reformers knew the memo said nothing, they constantly reminded people about it in order to force it to assume more power than it had.

Shortly after the memo, I commented:

So far, the responses to the Holder memo (that puts in writing the administration policy of not interfering with state medical marijuana operations unless they feel like it) has gotten a lot of favorable press — so much so that it’s likely to help apply pressure on the feds to actually make good their… pledge to prioritize. So despite the lack of teeth in the memo, it has served up a powerful result.

I was wrong about it causing the administration to make good their pledge, but I was write about it having a powerful result.

With the media being constantly reminded that the memo was an actual shift in policy, every time the Obama administration has made a raid, it’s been easy to paint it in the press as a betrayal — a flip-flop — an inconsistent policy that is impossible for law-abiding citizens to understand or follow.

Yes, it makes the Obama administration look bad for following their policy unchanged.

It’s quite possible this is an important reason for reform columns that Fred terms “whining.” It’s certainly a valid strategy, whether you agree with it or not.

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