Obama and Marijuana
New York — Of all the presidential contenders, Barack Obama has been the most forthcoming about his past drug use.
In his biography, he admits to having smoked marijuana, using some cocaine, briefly flirting with the idea of trying heroin (although he never used any) and imbibing a fair amount of alcohol when he was in high school and college.
Quizzed about his past drug use, he confessed to having inhaled the marijuana smoke, unlike Bill Clinton, who when faced with a similar question years ago, claimed that while he had smoked marijuana, he didn’t inhale.
"I inhaled. … That was the point," Obama told New Yorker editor David Remnick.
Obama’s honesty about what he and many other baby boomers did in the ’60s and ’70s, and which some continue to do today, was refreshing, given the general hypocrisy most of our politicians exhibit on the subject. We haven’t heard a peep about marijuana use from Hillary Clinton, though it’s a rare woman her age who hasn’t taken a few tokes. But then Clinton is so cautious that you rarely hear anything real coming from her.
While he’s considerably older than the other candidates, given that John McCain served in Vietnam and spent five years as a prisoner of war, it’s hard to believe that throughout that war and the added strain of his internment, when marijuana and much harder drugs were a favorite balm of U.S. soldiers, that no illegal substances ever touched his lips.
Nor can we expect any admissions from Mike Huckabee, the most avid Christian of the bunch, who has said that illegal drug use is not due to a failure of education, but to a failure of righteousness.
So having Obama admit to his past drug use is a kind of progress. It makes me wonder, should he wind up being our next president, if he would be the one to move this country out of its current drug policy rut. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, in 2005 police arrested almost 800,000 people for marijuana violations, the highest number ever recorded by the FBI. The overwhelming majority of these arrests were for possession only. Nor do the experts I’ve talked to suggest that the increase is in any way related to an increase in marijuana use. It is simply the result of greater harassment, usually of young people, and especially of young blacks, even though the research shows that whites use marijuana at a higher rate.
Queens College sociologist Harry Levine has done research that found that New York City police went on a marijuana arrest binge between 1997 and 2004, when marijuana arrests in the city increased twelvefold. During that time, marijuana use and availability remained largely unchanged. Police are subjecting young blacks and Latinos to arrest and overnight stays in jail, and introducing many who are without criminal records to the criminal justice system for offenses so minor that they don’t even rise to the level of crimes.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission recently approved a slight reduction in the sentencing disparity between powder cocaine-related crimes versus crack-related crimes, but eliminating the remaining disparity is up to Congress. And with a federal ban on the use of marijuana for medical purposes having been upheld by a conservative Supreme Court, federal drug agents continue to harass doctors and patients in the 12 states that have declared such use legal.
Politicians, pandering to public fears, continue to denounce marijuana with the fervor of the 1930s film "Reefer Madness," which claimed that smoking marijuana drove young people crazy, and led to violent crime and promiscuity.
How much of a departure from that outdated, erroneous thinking could we expect from the four front-runners? Not much from McCain, who is as militant about the war on drugs as he is about the war in Iraq. He favors increasing the penalties for selling drugs, the death penalty for drug kingpins, and even restricting the availability of methadone to heroin addicts. While he supports expanding federal education and treatment programs, he opposes making marijuana available for medical reasons.
To his credit, Huckabee, while calling for better patrolling of borders against drug smugglers, also supports drug courts and alternatives to prison for low-level drug offenders and drug addicts.
Clinton has said that, if elected, she would end federal raids on medical marijuana providers, eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powered cocaine, and oppose hard time for nonviolent drug offenders.
During one of the debates, Obama raised his hand with the other Democratic candidates when asked if they oppose the decriminalization of marijuana, but his campaign has since said that he supports decriminalization. And he has gone on record as opposing federal raids on medical marijuana providers.
Given his relative youth and his greater distance from older politicians who for years have obsessed over the most minor drug infractions like dogs picking over a bone, Obama may offer the greatest potential for a more enlightened drug policy. But even he has described his youthful dalliance with drugs in an apologetic way, as being a "mistake" during a time of youthful confusion.
It would be interesting, as he campaigns on college campuses, among the young people who have become the rising face of his campaign, if someone asked him:
"Mr. Obama, what exactly are you apologizing for?"