President Obama made a joke about his marijuana use at last week's White House Correspondents' Dinner. It was just one joke, and it was actually pretty funny. But should President Obama, arguably history's toughest president on marijuana, really be making jokes about marijuana when he knows our laws are misguided and disastrous but is unwilling to change them?
Traditionally, this dinner is when the president can joke around and show off his humor. His routine got off to a good start -- making jokes about the rap song in the background as he approached the microphone, mocking himself to lighten the mood. It didn't take long for him to reference his well-known juvenile marijuana use: "But the problem is that the media landscape is changing so rapidly. You can't keep up with it. I mean, I remember when Buzzfeed was just something I did in college around 2 a.m."
Now this may sound like a harmless joke (I admit I laughed), but let's consider the context. After more than 75 years of an ongoing war on people (like Barack Obama) who have used marijuana in the past or continue to use it now, this president should know now is the time to reform our failed marijuana laws. The war on drugs is responsible for more than 750,000 marijuana arrests every year -- tearing families apart and hurting our already suffering economy. Not only that, but it was Obama who said in 2004 that the war on drugs is an "utter failure" and that we need to "re-think and decriminalize our marijuana laws." And in 2009 he said his administration would be guided by science, not political ideology. The science is in -- marijuana is effective medicine for a plethora of ailments and, if used recreationally, is far less dangerous than many already legal drugs.
Eighteen states plus the District of Columbia have medical marijuana laws on the books. 52 percent of Americans now support legalizing marijuana outright. Residents of Colorado and Washington voted by overwhelming majorities last November to do just that in their states. And somehow, Obama won't even acknowledge the need for marijuana law reform or the extent to which public opinion no longer supports failed prohibitionist policies. In fact, he has overseen more law enforcement raids on medical marijuana dispensaries than George W. Bush during his entire eight years in office.
During college, President Obama used marijuana often with his buddies in a group called the "Choom Gang." If his clique was in school today under his own drug policies, he'd be much more likely to get arrested and very likely lose the chance of becoming President, especially given the extraordinary racial disparities in marijuana law enforcement. For example, in New York blacks are about seven times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites, even though whites use and sell marijuana at greater rates.
Public perception about marijuana is changing rapidly. It's common to see marijuana-themed jokes on late-night talk shows, movies -- all throughout popular culture. Say "pot" in an unlikely setting and people are almost guaranteed to giggle. But while this humor reflects a growing comfort with marijuana in our culture, it may also contribute to a negative stigma for millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens. As more people support marijuana legalization, our discourse about marijuana will have to mature as well. Elected officials must begin to advocate for what more than half the country (and counting) is already thinking.
Supporting marijuana legalization can actually be a winning strategy for politicians who don't want to look stuck in the past. Lt. Governor of California Gavin Newsom is now leading a charge to legalize marijuana in California the same way he did with gay marriage about 10 years ago. And earlier this Congress, Reps. Polis (D-CO), Blumenauer (D-OR), Rohrabacher (R-CA) and others introduced the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act, H.R. 499, which would end federal marijuana prohibition and set up a federal regulatory process -- similar to the one for alcohol -- for states that decide to legalize. President Obama should seize this historic opportunity -- lead by example and support rolling back our harsh marijuana laws.
It's safe, Mr. President -- public support is there for marijuana legalization. We at the Drug Policy Alliance like to say, "If the people lead, the leaders will follow!" And they're starting to, but the most important leader who has to follow is President Obama. We just have to get him to take this issue as seriously as it deserves.
Derek Rosenfeld is Internet Communications Associate for the Drug Policy Alliance