Political Animal


December 07, 2012 4:54 PM Old Democratic Position on Drugs Going Up In Smoke

By Ed Kilgore

One of the rapidly developing second-term problems for Barack Obama is his administration’s retrograde commitment to elements of the failed War on Drugs, and particularly the legal collision soon to occur between federal anti-drug warriors and states whose voters have chosen peace. Here’s Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson with the basics:

Legalization has set Colorado and Washington on a collision course with the Obama administration, which has shown no sign of backing down on its full-scale assault on pot growers and distributors. Although the president pledged to go easy on medical marijuana - now legal in 18 states - he has actually launched more raids on state-sanctioned pot dispensaries than George W. Bush, and has threatened to prosecute state officials who oversee medical marijuana as if they were drug lords. And while the administration has yet to issue a definitive response to the two new laws, the Justice Department was quick to signal that it has no plans to heed the will of voters. “Enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act,” the department announced in November, “remains unchanged.”

Dickinson quotes administration insiders as suggesting that mid-level bureaucrats marinated in the War on Drugs are responsible for the unwillingness to reconsider policies now that states are moving rapidly away from “Just Say No.”

And there’s no question the administration’s policies are being affected by ancient fears of liberal vulnerability on the subject. Even if today’s dope-smokers are as likely to be libertarian MBAs and/or African-Americans as the white slacker hippies of legend and lore, stereotypes die hard.

In urging Obama to get with the program, Andrew Sullivan makes it angry and personal:

[I]f [Obama’s appointees] decide to treat the law-abiding citizens of Colorado and Washington as dangerous felons; if they decide to allocate their precious law enforcement powers to persecuting and arresting people for following a state law that they have themselves just passed by clear majorities; if they decide that opposing a near majority of Americans in continuing to prosecute the drug war on marijuana, even when the core of their own supporters want an end to Prohibition, and even when that Prohibition makes no sense … then we will give them hell.
And it will get personal. The president wasn’t just once a pot-smoker, he was a very serious pothead. His own life and career prove that this substance is no more potentially damaging to a human being than alcohol, which is not only legal but marketed to us with abandon. The future coalition he has built - especially its Millennial base - will splinter. Maybe even some libertarian Republicans will seize the issue and champion federalism consistently for a change.

This last suggestion ain’t happening any time soon, but Sullivan is speaking for a lot of angry people here. If the administration can agree not to make enforcement of other bad laws—like the Defense of Marriage Act—a prosecutorial priority, it can do exactly the same thing with pot.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • mikekinseattle on December 07, 2012 5:48 PM:

    As a Washingtonian who enthusiastically voted for both I-502 and President Obama, I'll take it very personally. I'm no spring chicken at 58, but I'm a pot smoker, and I've lived my entire adult life waiting for this moment. I'll be damned if I'm going to let Obama, who, if he had been arrested while with the Choom gang back in Hawaii, would not be president today, steal the overwhelming mandate of the citizens of our fair state (final tally: 56% YES on I-502, not even close).

    Further, the motto of the Yes on I-502 campaign was 'A New Approach'. Candidate Obama said in 2008 that if something isn't working, we should try something new. The drug war has been a spectacular failure. Maybe we should try a new approach. And just saying that the drug war is over doesn't make it over. Actions, Mr. President, not words. We're counting on you to do the right thing.

  • bdop4 on December 07, 2012 5:51 PM:

    I can only hope California follows the lead of Colorado and Washington. Not only will it help end the ridiculous War on Drugs, it will also provide and additional source of sorely needed tax revenue.

  • Dredd on December 07, 2012 6:30 PM:

    "Legalization has set Colorado and Washington on a collision course with the Obama administration, which has shown no sign of backing down on its full-scale assault on pot growers and distributors."

    They have so much to hide behind, State's Rights, and the feds not making criminal laws ...

    So this must be part of the permanent government, the part we can't get to with our votes.

  • MuddyLee on December 07, 2012 7:42 PM:

    Democrats: force President Obama to change. If it's legal in a state, you can't have the feds coming in - no more prohibition. Set a NEW precedent - some day there will be another republican president.

  • C. P. Zilliacus on December 07, 2012 8:17 PM:

    I don't use marihuana now, nor have I ever (can't stand the smell of the stuff), but I don't really care if others want to smoke or consume the stuff. And think of the tax revenue to be collected - and the prisons that could be closed and the number of Mexican drug cartel kingpins very upset with their number one market suddenly gone up in smoke.

    Brewer and Shipley (1971): One toke over the line

  • Marvin on December 07, 2012 8:43 PM:

    I'm OK with pot legalization, but I'm not OK with a Philip-Morris or Anheuser-Busch of pot. I'm also not OK with buying pot imported from Mexican drug lords. Are there provisions in the statutes in WA and CO that keep things local and small scale? I'm asking because I don't know.

  • Mikekinseattle on December 07, 2012 10:10 PM:

    I can't speak for CO, but in WA, it must be produced in state by registerd growers.

  • John on December 08, 2012 3:19 AM:

    I'm very much in favor of marijuana legalization, and I don't think the federal government should spend much time prosecuting people for marijuana charges, but seriously, if you're committing federal felonies, you are not a "law-abiding citizen."

    More broadly, I don't see how state legalization can be anything but a complete mess as long as marijuana offenses remain crimes under federal law. Are state-licensed growers and distributors supposed to report their income from growing marijuana on their federal tax returns? If they're "law-abiding citizens," as Sullivan puts it, obviously they should. But it seems like this would be admitting to commission of a felony. The whole thing seems unworkable, and I'm certainly not willing to adopt libertarianish states' rights nonsense on this issue when I'm not willing to accept it on other issues.

    If real change is going to come, it will have to come from congress.

  • Mark on December 08, 2012 12:22 PM:

    I am sure that much like the President I smoked pot because I wanted it to. I liked it. When I decided to stop smoking pot it wasn't because it was against the law, I just didn't like how I felt in the morning. I was a conscious decision to stop. I am pretty sure that the main reason he stopped smoking wasn't just because it was against the law.

    Just because it is legal here in CO, does not mean I am going to start smoking it again, much like I don't drink alcohol everyday.
    As a business owner, I can't walk into my client's office drunk or stoned and expect to be taken seriously.

    As states do much of the enforcement of the law, then yes those people are in fact "law-abiding citizens: if in fact that state has legalized pot.
    Back when the federal government was looking to prosecute the DC Sniper they wanted look at having the state of Virginia prosecute both suspects in VA because VA had the death penalty as there is no federal "death penalty" statue. Seems to me that the Feds were willing to let the States use their laws to the Feds advantage then.

  • John on December 08, 2012 2:12 PM:

    Once again: if you are committing federal felonies, you are not a law-abiding citizen. States do "do much of the enforcement of the law", but the federal government also does much of the enforcement of the law, and a federal felony is just as much a felony as a state felony.

    In practice, what this law seems to mean is that it'll be much harder to get busted for simple possession - state authorities won't be doing those kinds of busts anymore, and the federal government has never been interested in small-time possession busts.

    But the growing and distribution networks will either be quasi-legal places that are extremely vulnerable to federal raids and shutdowns, or else remain underground. Likely some combination of the two.

    Anyone who starts a business selling pot, even if it's condoned (even licensed, if things become that ridiculous) by state governments, has no business acting surprised and outraged when the federal government shuts them down. Because they were committing a felony.

    I think drug policies are terrible, but there's no answer at the state level, and liberals ought to be very careful about arguing for libertarianish states' rights arguments that we reject on most other subjects.

  • jeffreydj on December 09, 2012 3:13 AM:

    I gotta expound upon a relatively trivial, though not entirely unrelated matter. "Don't Bogart That Joint" is a performance by Fraternity of Man, NOT Country Joe & the Fish. The Fish had their own pro-pot tunes, but that was not one of them.

    Boo on those slackers that edited that clip. I'm a lifelong pothead, and even I can distinguish those two bands.