Is the president right?

Young person: BarackObama, a college freshman in 1980.

Barack Obama, a former young person, enjoying a puff as a college freshman in 1980. (Photograph by Lisa Jacks. More available at Time.com by clicking on photo.)

“Let’s put it in perspective,” said the 53-year-old president. “Young people, I understand this is important to you. But you should be thinking about climate change, the economy, jobs, war and peace. Maybe way at the bottom you should be thinking about marijuana.”

Way at the bottom?

Others — “young people,” especially — have pointed out how patronizing and clueless this comment is. See the comments in USA TODAY as an example.

But the former pot smoker’s remarks illustrate why regular people, not “leaders,”, must end marijuana prohibition with little assistance from the political class.

The president sees the marijuana debate primarily as one about regulation. In fact, regulation is a secondary issue. It matters little whether Colorado, Washington or Oregon has the best tax rates and regulatory boards for marijuana (or alcohol or dentistry).

It matters a lot whether people stop getting arrested and imprisoned, denied medicine, jobs, driver’s licenses and college aid. The marijuana debate is primarily over tolerance, autonomy and human dignity.

Obama’s concerns are narrow because he spends his days trying to make the best laws and regulations, so he naturally believes that his technocratic concerns must be of central importance and deserve to be the priorities of others. This is observer bias. Or, as young people might say, nonsense.

Barry doesn’t smoke pot anymore, so what’s the big deal about getting it legally? Barry doesn’t fear a criminal record or prison sentence, so what’s the urgency?

The former toker is in a better position than anyone in the nation to help end 700,000 arrests a year and tens of thousands of people being sent to prison. Yet he suffers the myopia that comes with age and is often advanced in those who are affluent, powerful and protected. He understands the everyday suffering of everyday people in an academic sense but the pain of an electrician’s unemployment that follows a six-month license suspension for marijuana doesn’t resonate in the heart of privilege.

Does marijuana make you gay?

Obama, a studious pot smoker

Obama, a studious pot smoker

Substitution is a good technique for logical and emotional wisdom. Replace marijuana for “gay” or “black” or “Jewish” for a sense of where the issue belongs today in the hierarchy of human rights concerns. We’ll substitute “gay” to minimize the emotional power.

As Obama said: “Gay rights shouldn’t be gay people’s biggest priority. Let’s put it in perspective. Gay people, I understand this is important to you. But you should be thinking about climate change, the economy, jobs, war and peace. Maybe way at the bottom you should be thinking about gay right and gay marriage.”

A reasoned response might be: Mr. President, did you know that the federal government has:

  • sent more than 110,000 gays to prison since 1996, including 54 sentenced to life without parole?
  • imprisoned more than 35,000 gays while he has been president, including 11 for life without parole?
  • a president who has failed to use his constitutional clemency power to free any of these gay men and women?
  • continued this year to imprison more than 20 gays every workday?

The above facts are true about non-violent marijuana offenders. How can he be so indifferent to harm that he oversees every day?

The idea that marijuana is mostly a state issue is wrong, It’s true that states and local police make most marijuana arrests, but the federal government ranks No. 1 in marijuana imprisoning.

California had only 482 marijuana offenders total in state prison at the end of 2013.  The feds imprison this many pot offenders per month — and for much longer sentences. 

Marijuana legalization matters greatly to young people because it’s mostly young people who are harmed — arrested, imprisoned, stigmatized, fired, denied college aid, etc.

Obama’s administration has done some good — reducing marijuana sentence lengths, refusing to fight full throttle against state legalization efforts — but this deserves muffled applause and only in the sense of “it’s not how well the elephant dances; it’s that the elephant dances at all.”

Obama is a follower when he should a leader. He should work to end the federal mandate that driver’s licenses be suspended for marijuana offenses (unrelated to driving), get rid of rules that make it hard for  pot smokers have getting in the drunks-welcome  military and, of course, get marijuana is a Schedule 1.

In his interview, Obama continued talking about pot with the faux wisdom of a behind-the-times politician who thinks he’s ahead of the times.

“I always say to folks, you know, legalization or decriminalization is not a panacea. Do you feel the same about meth, do we feel the same about coke, how about crack, how about heroin? And there is a legitimate, I think, concern about the overall effect this has on society and particularly vulnerable parts of our society. Substance abuse generally – legal and illegal substances – is a problem. Locking someone up for twenty years is probably not the best strategy and that is something we have to rethink as a society as a whole.”

Here’s some advice to today’s youth: “Teach your parents well.”

— Dennis Cauchon, editor, The Clemency Report


Cauchon, 57, a former USA TODAY reporter, doesn’t smoke pot or drink alcohol but, as the father of two teenage boys, has reportedly lectured “young people” about priorities. 

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