In watching the evolving hubbub around President Obama's statement about drug legalization on Youtube on January 27, when he said, "I think this is an entirely legitimate topic for debate, [but] I am not in favor of legalization," I'm reminded of December 7, 1993.
Sitting at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., someone at my table asked U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders if she would support legalizing drugs as a way of curbing drug-related violence. Her now-famous answer was this: "I do feel we'd markedly reduce our crime rate if drugs were legalized. I don't know all the ramifications, but I do feel we need to do some studies. Some other countries that have legalized drugs, they certainly have shown that there has been a reduction in their crime rate, and there has been no increase in their drug rate."
New to the fake conservatism of D.C., I was surprised at the national outcry that resulted. For days, political commentators and newspaper editorial boards pulled their hair out, incredulous that President Clinton's top physician would say something so "irresponsible."
Compare that knee-jerk reaction with today's public response to a similar remark, except this time it's the actual president who made the remark. There's much less outcry today, and many people are actually criticizing Obama for not going farther and declaring that at least marijuana should be legal.
The differences between the two events and the surrounding discussions show how far politicians, the political chattering class, and the public have matured in just 17 years. Indeed, public support for making marijuana legal was only 25% back then, but now it's 46% -- a rise of 1.4% per year.
While I'm glad the president is favoring debate -- rather than shutting down debate, as his predecessors did -- the rest of his response was fairly disappointing. Here are my major criticisms of the president's approach to this debate ...
-- Public Health Problem: He also said, "I am a strong believer that we have to think more about drugs as a public health problem." By definition, removing something from the sphere of criminal justice requires legalizing or decriminalizing it. If Obama really believes this, then why continue to treat marijuana use as a crime? For example, eating gobs of cheeseburgers and eggs is widely considered a public-health problem, but no one is arguing that such consumers should be arrested. And it should be noted that cholesterol kills more people in America every year than have been killed by marijuana use in all of recorded history.
-- Obama, the Criminal: Obama is a former user of marijuana and cocaine, so to oppose the legalization -- or at least the decriminalization -- of drugs like these is hypocritical. If he's unwilling to push for substantial drug policy reform, there's only one way out of the hypocrisy, and that is to turn himself in for arrest. Having never experienced the negative effects that a criminal record can have on getting an education or finding a job, it seems like he is willfully overlooking that if he had been one of the 800,000 people who are arrested for marijuana every year, he would probably not be where he is.
-- Shrink Demand: Obama dedicates most of his answer to talking about how we need to shift taxpayer resources from reducing the supply of drugs to reducing the demand for drugs. The ideal approach is not to use taxpayer money for either, and instead to let adults and private institutions decide for themselves how they want to handle drugs; but if money must be spent on one side or the other, clearly, the money should shift from law enforcement and interdiction to drug treatment and education. Continuing to arrest people for marijuana does nothing to reduce demand, and is one of the most expensive aspects of the drug war.
It's also worth noting that 100 of the top 100 questions from the public were about drug policy reform. You read that right.
It wasn't that long ago that discussing the legalization of drugs was akin to discussing whether it should be legal to dump toxic waste on the property line between your yard and your neighbor's yard: Both were such unpopular ideas that there was no need to feature either debate on TV or newspaper editorial pages.
Now, support or opposition to marijuana policy reform is a common discussion in the media and at the dinner table; it's now more akin to discussing school vouchers, with each side polling between 40% and 60%.
The marijuana issue is indeed legitimate, and with support for reform steadily climbing, it's definitely in the spotlight. But it won't be that way forever, so if you want to effect change while the wind is at our backs, you know where to find me.