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
By: John H. Richardson
Writer-at-large John H. Richardson's column, "The Richardson Report," runs right here each Tuesday.
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Congress had already repealed Prohibition, pending ratification from the states.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:
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 bong 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."