As the nation’s capital prepares to open its first legal medicinal marijuana dispensary and Sen. Rand Paul’s call for legalization basks in bipartisan praise, it’s time for President Barack Obama to clear the air around his own passive-aggressive position on pot.
Until now, the president has been remarkably adept at taking positions that seemed to be ahead of their time — and getting ahead of them.
For example, when he declared his full support for the right of same-sex couples to marry, there were fears among his supporters that he would lose important votes before his re-election campaign, particularly among black churchgoers. Those fears proved to be exaggerated.
But four years after his Justice Department announced that the feds will no longer crack down on medicinal marijuana sellers who follow state laws, the president’s position on pot continues to be dangerously vague and confusing.
In California, where voters approved medicinal use back in 1996, the law was so vaguely worded that about 1,000 dispensaries mushroomed up in Los Angeles County alone. Yet busts continued, partly over disputes as to whether the law allowed only nonprofit businesses.
At the other extreme, November ballots in Colorado and Washington state legalized marijuana for recreational use, and the District of Columbia’s first dispensary, Capital City Care, has its website up and plans to open in April.
And, on another front, Paul, a famously libertarian Kentucky Republican, has introduced a bill with Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy to restore greater flexibility to judges than currently is allowed by mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes.
In a recent interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace, Paul got to the heart of the current tragedy: ruined lives. “Our prisons are full of nonviolent criminals,” he said. “I don’t want to encourage people to do it. I think even marijuana is a bad thing to do. … But I also don’t want to put people in jail who make a mistake.”
He spoke forcefully of the many young nonviolent offenders like Obama, who has written about his teen drug indiscretions, and possibly former President George W. Bush, who has politely refused to confirm or deny what manner of drug use might have accompanied alcohol during the years before he found sobriety.
“Look, the last two presidents could conceivably have been put in jail for their drug use and I really think, you know, look what would have happened,” he said. “They got lucky, but a lot of poor kids, particularly in the inner city, they don’t get lucky, they don’t have good attorneys, and they go to jail for these things, and I think it’s a big mistake.”
On that note regarding nonviolent drug offenders, Paul strikes a nerve with me and numerous other African-Americans and civil rights advocates. As Michelle Alexander, an Ohio State University associate professor of law, writes in her best-seller “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” statistics show a majority of African-American men in major urban areas to be in jail, on probation, otherwise “under correctional control” or “saddled with criminal records for the rest of their lives.”
The result is a new form of second-class citizenship that traps them in “a parallel social universe, denied basic civil and human rights.” That includes the right to vote, to serve on juries and to be free of legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to education and other public benefits.
And the financial cost on top of the social cost of the failed “war on drugs” has caused such big conservative names as anti-tax lobbyist Grover Norquist, former House speaker Newt Gingrich and former attorney general Edwin Meese to join others in Right On Crime. That nonpartisan effort is aimed at promoting less costly and more productive alternatives to incarceration, such as drug treatment and community service for nonviolent offenders.
With the trends moving in such a productive direction, I’m hardly alone in wondering what Obama is waiting for. As with the issue of same-sex marriage, his support could get ahead of the trend and help move it along. He can even claim it was his idea all along.