Why Obama Really Might Decriminalize Marijuana

  • by Allen St. Pierre, Former NORML Executive Director December 23, 2008

    Esquire contacted NORML as well this week curious about what appears to be an opportune time for cannabis law reformers at the nascent stages of the new Obama administration. Below is Esquire’s John Richardson’s take on these interesting and active times in cannabis law reform.

    Allen St. Pierre, Director, NORML

    The stoner community is clamoring to say it: “Yes we cannabis!” Turns out, with several drug-war veterans close to the president-elect’s ear, insiders think reform could come in Obama’s second term — or sooner

    Writer-at-large John H. Richardson’s column, “The Richardson Report,” runs each Tuesday.

    Why Obama Really Might Decriminalize Marijuana

    Famously, Franklin Delano Roosevelt saved the United States banking system during the first seven days of his first term.

    And what did he do on the eighth day? “I think this would be a good time for beer,” he said.

    Congress had already repealed Prohibition, pending ratification from the states. But the people needed a lift, and legalizing beer would create a million jobs. And lo, booze was back. Two days after the bill passed, Milwaukee brewers hired six hundred people and paid their first $10 million in taxes. Soon the auto industry was tooling up the first $12 million worth of delivery trucks, and brewers were pouring tens of millions into new plants.

    “Roosevelt’s move to legalize beer had the effect he intended,” says Adam Cohen, author of Nothing To Fear, a thrilling new history of FDR’s first hundred days. “It was, one journalist observed, ‘like a stick of dynamite into a log jam.'”

    Many in the marijuana world are now hoping for something similar from Barack Obama. After all, the president-elect said in 2004 that the war on drugs had been “an utter failure” and that America should decriminalize pot (watch video here).

    In July, Obama told Rolling Stone that he believed in “shifting the paradigm” to a public-health approach: “I would start with nonviolent, first-time drug offenders. The notion that we are imposing felonies on them or sending them to prison, where they are getting advanced degrees in criminality, instead of thinking about ways like drug courts that can get them back on track in their lives — it’s expensive, it’s counterproductive, and it doesn’t make sense.”

    Meanwhile, economists have been making the beer argument. In a paper titled “Budgetary Implications of Marijuana Prohibition,” Dr. Jeffrey Miron of Harvard argues that legalized marijuana would generate between $10 and $14 billion in savings and taxes every year — conclusions endorsed by 300 top economists, including Milton “Free Market” Friedman himself.

    And two weeks ago, when the Obama team asked the public to vote on the top problems facing America, this was the public’s No. 1 question: “Will you consider legalizing marijuana so that the government can regulate it, tax it, put age limits on it, and create millions of new jobs and a billion dollar industry right here in the U.S.?”

    But alas, the answer from Camp Obama was — as it has been for years — a flat one-liner: “President-elect Obama is not in favor of the legalization of marijuana.” And at least two of Obama’s top people are drug-war supporters: Rahm Emanuel has been a long-time enemy of reform, and Joe Biden is a drug-war mainstay who helped create the position of “drug czar.”

    Meanwhile, in 2007, the last year for which statistics are available, 782,000 Americans were arrested for marijuana-related crimes (90 percent of them for possession), with approximately 60,000 to 85,000 of them serving sentences in jail or prison. It’s the continuation of an unnecessary stream of suffering that now has taught generations of Americans just how capricious their government can be. The irony is that the preference for “decriminalization” over legalization actually supports the continued existence of criminal drug mafias.

    Nevertheless, the marijuana community is guardedly optimistic. “Reformers will probably be disappointed that Obama is not going to go as far as they want, but we’re probably not going to continue this mindless path of prohibition,” NORML executive director Allen St. Pierre tells me.

    Some of Obama’s biggest financial donors are friends of the legalization movement, St. Pierre notes. “Frankly, George Soros, Peter Lewis, and John Sperling — this triumvirate of billionaires — if those three men, who put up $50 to $60 million to get Democrats and Obama elected, can’t pick up the phone and actually get a one-to-one meeting on where this drug policy is going, then maybe it’s true that when you give money, you don’t expect favors.”

    Another member of that moneyed group: Marsha Rosenbaum, the former head of the San Francisco office of the Drug Policy Alliance, who quit last year to become a fundraiser for Obama and “bundled” an impressive $204,000 for his campaign. She said that based on what she hears from inside the transition team, she expects Obama to play it very safe. “He said at one point that he’s not going to use any political capital with this — that’s a concern,” Rosenbaum tells me. And the Path to Change will probably have to pass through the Valley of Studies and Reports. “I’m hoping that what the administration will do,” she says, “is something this country hasn’t done since 1971, which is to undertake a presidential commission to look at drug policy, convene a group of blue-ribbon experts to look at the issue, and make recommendations.”

    But ultimately, Rosenbaum remains confident that those recommendations would call for an end to the drug war. “Once everything settles down in the second term, we have a shot at seeing some real reform.”

    Still, a certain paranoia prevails. Rumors about Obama’s choice for drug czar have lingered on Republican Congressman Jim Ramstad. “He’s been a standard anti-drug warrior for the whole time he’s been in Congress,” says St. Pierre. Another possibility is Atlanta police chief Richard Pennington, who raises fears in the legalization community of more of the same law-enforcement model. Another prospect stirring the pothead waters is Dr. Don Vereen, the chief drug policy thinker on the transition team. “He’s really a believer in prohibition and he can excite an audience,” says Rosenbaum, who says a friend on the transition team refused to hint at final contenders for the drug czar pick. “I’m joking with him, ‘I’m going to have to open up the New York Times for this, aren’t I?'” His answer: “We’re going to send out smoke signals.”

    43 responses to “Why Obama Really Might Decriminalize Marijuana”

    1. Adam says:

      Why does the people not matter anymore? I don’t understand why there hasn’t been a national vote on this once and for all and really see what America thinks. I believe those on the hill would be very surpirsed by the outcome. We’re out there were voting them in why can’t we have a say on how our country is run. I feel America has lost itself… lost touch with the very core we were founded on. We were once a country that took action now we are a country that sits and waits for our leaders to tell us how to think. I’m 21 and scared for the future.

    2. J.Hall says:

      I really think it is time for us to stand side by side with our brothers and sisters, and say enough..We demand to be heard, we demand our say be the final say. We need to all look at our Declaration of Independence ..Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.. I am also scared for our future.

    3. Barberito! says:


      I would argue that the reason there hasn’t been a national vote (aside from legal reasons) is that our government is all too aware of what the outcome of such a vote would be. They only have to look at the 14 states that have voted in favor of MMJ, and the handful of states that have decriminalized cannabis, to know that many in the so-called “justice” system and prison-industrial complex would be out of work!

      The only things that really matter to the two dominant political parties are gaining power, keeping power, and gaining even more power and keeping that power!

      Politics equals corruption (except for some very rare cases), and that’s the way it always has and always will be. Don’t worry too much – the answer is right in front of us, but it will take courage! Vote for third parties that will neuter the out-of-control government – like Libertarians or Ron Paul types.

    4. BS43 says:

      Mr. St.Pierre, I’ve tried to leave feedback @ the Hill and for some reason they won’t post it. I’m sure you know that the moderaters are picking and choosing, duh right? That’s how it works. I’m just a little peeved to think that I spent all that time writing and it fell upon deaf ears. It was fair and balanced. No matter, I could write about it anytime, any place at any length. I will only post here from now on since I can’t get my feelings out anywhere else. Thank you so much for allowing me to do so. Merry Christmas to you and your’s and to all of the supporters and their loved one’s. I love all of you no matter what. Even my brother’s and sister’s in other countries. Thank you all for making me feel NORML. Keep up the fight. You have my support. Respectfully, Aaron H. (Kansas)

    5. The people do matter, Adam. The reason there hasn’t been a vote on this is because that’s not the way things are done and thats not the way things have ever been done. Everyone votes for local representatives, i.e. Senators and Congressmen and national representative, i.e. the President and these people are supposed to “represent” us when drafting and making public policy. I do, however, relate with your sense of frustration over the current system, because in many aspects, drug policy being the biggest one, the politicians available to be chosen for representation don’t actually represent the majority of people’s opinions, which in turn creates this terrible position for the American public where they either don’t vote or hold their noses and vote for the lesser of two evils who in the end is just more of the same. I’m 20 and hopeful for the future, and I would suggest if you think the way things are being run right now suck, then vote! and also get involved, in any way you can, even if its just spreading the truth to people who are totally blind or ignorant to this issue because “The truth shall set us free.”

    6. Joe says:

      I often wonder what our founding fathers would think about our current state of affairs? I often feel that the framers of our constituition would role over in their graves if they could see what has become of this once great country.

    7. Kevin says:

      We don’t need to make more laws regulating marijuana. The reason Obama might “legalize” marijuana is to get all us “free-thinkers” to accept some kind of federal registration (aka Real ID). Let’s be careful not to get too excited that we jump through hoops just to get something that is just as naturally legal now as it will ever be. We do not want anybody telling us what we can’t, and can, do.

    8. Paul says:

      Adam, you should be scared for the future. The only way Obama is going to end the Drug War is if he gets blasted by every opposer with a promis not to vote for him next time round unless he ends it. This would only be effective if all those closet users spoke up also and all at the same time.

    9. Jack says:

      Adam, the people know.

      The prohibition isn’t just a purple elephant anymore. It has evolved into the circus and everyones got their part. politicians, parents, activists, you, me, Big Pharma, my little brother in D.A.R.E. right now…anyone caught up in the American Dream. The only change coming is a new ring leader. He can talk all the talk, but will he walk the walk? Yes he cannabis?

      Besides a million other reasons, let’s get common sense real about this… Do not anticipate the DEA, nor other like government agencies, to avidly relinquish such enormous power over the masses.

      Do It For Liberty,
      -21 And Scared Too

    10. jobbert says:

      “The time comes upon every public man when it is best for him to keep his lips closed.”

      Abraham Lincoln

      Obama is quite the admirer of Lincoln…. The best we can do now is …hope…