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The Marijuana Vote

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Jimmy Kimmel is right... sort of. In this past weekend's schmooze-fest between media organizations and the president (and, for some inexplicable reason, Hollywood), Kimmel performed a comedy routine for the president and the assembled crowd. Toward the end (around 19:40 in this video) Kimmel made a few marijuana jokes. He started by directly asking the president, "What is with the marijuana crackdown?" Of course, being a comedian, a few punchlines followed. But the most notable one, like all good comedic roasting, had a kernel of truth in it: "You know, pot smokers vote, too. Sometimes a week after the election, but they vote."

President Obama's election in 2008 was notable for the high turnout of a few demographic groups that normally don't vote in large numbers (most notably young people). The 2012 election, by comparison, sees both political parties fighting their own separate waves of profound unenthusiasm. Republicans are quite enthusiastic about defeating Obama, but if there are people actively enthusiastic about Mitt Romney, I certainly haven't noticed them yet. On the Democratic side, there is indeed enthusiasm for holding onto the White House for four more years, but Barack Obama has disillusioned many previously enthusiastic voters, who may drag themselves to the polls and vote for him but will not be fervently volunteering in his reelection campaign (as they did four years ago).

With this political atmosphere, it is a complete mystery why President Obama and his Justice Department chose, roughly halfway through his first term, to launch a crackdown on marijuana that goes further even than his Republican predecessor.

Parts of this crackdown can only be properly called "draconian." A state, for example, passes a medical marijuana law, and the state's top legal officer then attempts to create some common-sense rules and regulations to implement the new law, which was passed by a direct vote of the state's citizens. The Obama Justice Department reacts by threatening to prosecute the top state attorney as a major drug trafficker, using laws passed at the height of the Drug War hysteria (the "Nancy Reagan years"). Got that? The voters pass a law, the top state attorney tries to implement the law, and the U.S. Justice Department threatens him with 20 years or more in federal prison if he does so. In another state where medical marijuana is legal, the Justice Department threatens weekly free newspapers with prosecution for running ads for medical marijuana services. So much for freedom of speech and the press, eh?

These are just the most disgusting and disgraceful examples of the marijuana crackdown that has been ramping up in the past few years. But one has to wonder: Why is Barack Obama doing this? As Barney Frank pointed out in a recent interview on the subject: "I think it's bad politics and bad policy." Usually, when presidents put on their Drug Warrior hat, they are pandering to what used to be called the "law-and-order" demographic of the American electorate. Obama, strangely enough, does not even seem to be doing this. He has not made an issue of the raids and has not even attempted to score any political points with his actions. He virtually never mentions the frequent raids and only reluctantly answers questions about them.

He attempted to do so in a recent Rolling Stone interview and gave an answer that is patently ludicrous:

I can't nullify congressional law. I can't ask the Justice Department to say, "Ignore completely a federal law that's on the books." What I can say is, "Use your prosecutorial discretion and properly prioritize your resources to go after things that are really doing folks damage." As a consequence, there haven't been prosecutions of users of marijuana for medical purposes.

Oh really, Mr. President? Then please explain what you are currently doing on the Defense of Marriage Act, which you have instructed your Justice Department to ignore. Please explain why you chose not to prosecute any federal employee who possibly might have broken U.S. and international laws on torture. You do indeed have such discretion, and you are quite simply intensifying the war on medical marijuana for some reason or another, which you refuse to share with the American people.

I saw a show by another comedian a while back: Bill Maher, who summed up the legalities surrounding medical marijuana thusly, more or less: "You can't grow it, you can't buy it, you can't even get it for free, but if a joint should suddenly drop from the sky into your lips, then you are allowed to smoke it." That seems to be the goal Obama's Justice Department is striving to achieve.

The truly sad part is that it does not have to be like this. Attorney General Eric Holder -- singlehandedly -- could change the law. It wouldn't have to go through Congress, and it wouldn't have to be signed by the president; Holder himself could make one regulation change and move marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule II of the list of dangerous controlled substances. Schedule II drugs may be prescribed and used legally. Schedule I drugs may not. He even admitted this to the Huffington Post at the dinner at which Kimmel performed. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia -- one third of the 51 state-level governments in this country -- have passed medical marijuana laws. The federal government refuses to recognize this reality, but it doesn't make it any less real.

Kimmel, setting up another punchline, had another wise thing to say: "Marijuana is something that real people care about." I can vouch for this. I have friends with serious illnesses (Parkinson's, for example) who are medical marijuana patients. Most of these folks are about as far left as you can get, politically. They would have been overjoyed at a President Kucinich or a President Dean, to put it another way. They were, for the most part, fairly enthusiastic about voting for Barack Obama. They are not anymore. As one put it, "President Obama has been worse than President Bush on the issue of my health and my medicine. Why would I vote for him again?"

The "marijuana vote" is something that is virtually impossible to demographically study. It cuts across all the standard groupings of age, sex, occupation, living situation, ethnicity, race, religion, and economic status. It can't be studied, because its members are perpetually underground: What they do is illegal, after all, and who is going to admit to a random pollster on the telephone: "Sure, I smoke pot... I smoke a bunch of pot!" The marijuana vote does not advertise itself on bumper stickers ("I smoke pot, and I VOTE!") or with any organized political movement. When people can lose their jobs (or worse) by admitting they're part of a demographic, then compiling stats on the group becomes impossible. They are invisible, and their aim (under our current laws) is to stay that way.

In public life, admitting to smoking marijuana used to be an automatic disqualification for a candidate for just about any office. Now, it is not. Politicians are given a free pass on the issue; "When I was young and irresponsible... in college... I smoked some pot" does not disqualify anyone anymore from any office. What I keep waiting for some intrepid reporter to ask one of these public figures is: "Do you think you would be where you are today if you had gotten busted for your marijuana use back then?" It's all about not getting caught, in other words. If you smoked pot in a frat house and never got busted, that is one thing. If you did get nabbed, well, sorry, but nobody's going to vote for you. How twisted is the logic behind that? Politicians who skated by when they were young now approve a crackdown on the very same things they used to do (but escaped punishment for). The stench of hypocrisy is impossible to avoid.

Kimmel is right about one thing. Pot smokers vote. He's also right that, sometimes, they just stay home and don't bother... but it's not because they're too stoned to remember what day it is. President Obama needs to realize this.

 

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