I heard a profound statement once, circa about 1987, that perfectly showed how circular logic can sometimes happen in the real world. Or maybe a closed loop of "art imitates life imitates art." The statement was: "When people design 'futuristic'-looking things -- such as architecture, for instance -- they all tend to wind up looking the same. This is because we all watched the same science-fiction movies as kids." As I said, circular logic: movie-makers dream up "the future," then when we get to the future, we find it looks the same because we all remember what the future's "supposed to look like."
This is a roundabout way of introducing this column, by pointing out that we all saw the same Cheech and Chong movies, growing up. Which is doubtlessly why the governor of Colorado felt it was appropriate to send out the following as a response to the voters of his state approving marijuana legalization:
The voters have spoken and we have to respect their will. This will be a complicated process, but we intend to follow through. That said, federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug so don't break out the Cheetos or gold fish too quickly.
Now, in the first place, he should have typed "Goldfish" rather than "gold fish" since (1.) even the dictionary spells the general term as a compound word, and (2.) like Cheetos, it's actually a trademark for snack food. Which would be a dandy place to retort with some sort of stoner joke (even the most generic: "What have you been smoking, dude?"). But this is actually my point -- at some point, once we've all had a laugh, it's going to be time to actually get serious about the subject of marijuana, and our incredibly outdated legal outlook towards it.
Take Governor Hickenlooper, to begin with. He made his own personal fortune in the beer brewing industry. He was against Colorado legalizing marijuana, which is certainly a measure of hypocrisy right there. At least he seems to be (albeit slowly) getting on board with the will of his state's voters now, and was even good-natured enough to pose for a funny photo with a marijuana advocate, visually poking fun at his own joke. But once the kidding is over, he now will be required to negotiate with the federal government over how the circle of "Drug War versus will of the people" can be squared. Which may be a very serious legal struggle.
Or perhaps we should start thinking about who he's going to be negotiating with. So far, Attorney General Eric Holder and the Justice Department have been unexpectedly silent on how the federal government's law enforcement wing is going to react to the two states where recreational marijuana use will soon be legal. There were no heavy-handed warnings before the election on the subject, which the pro-pot folks are taking as a hopeful sign. But the real question may not be how Eric Holder is going to handle things, but how his successor will deal with the problem. Holder, at the moment, is being cagey about whether he is going to step down for President Obama's second term, so this could be a crucial question for whomever gets named to his post (unless Holder decides to stay).
Holder's boss is who the policy should really be coming from, though. On this front, President Obama has a decidedly mixed record. He was originally elected promising to back the federal government off, when it came to enforcing federal law in states with legal medical marijuana laws. This lasted roughly two years, and then a federal crackdown began in these states. Obama himself didn't do much better, when confronted by questions about marijuana from average citizens. On numerous occasions, Obama tried to reach out over the internet to see what Americans wanted to ask him. Marijuana advocates, however, are all over the internet, and so Obama kept getting questioned about it. He has dodged most of these questions, or laughed them off with a joke.
It's time to stop kidding around, and come up with a policy, though. President Obama was (to put it politely) a "marijuana enthusiast" as a young man. He definitely inhaled, to put it another way. He was a stoner when in school in Hawai'i -- there is no other honest way to put it. And look at him now -- President of the United States of America. In fact, for twenty years now we've had presidents who admitted previous marijuana use. We've had people nominated to the Supreme Court who admitted the same thing. We've had too many other political leaders admit they've previously smoked a little pot to even count, at this point. Heck, the fastest aquatic man on Earth, Michael Phelps, was pictured doing a bong hit between Olympics. This all should absolutely destroy the negative stereotype/propaganda which says "pot smokers never achieve anything, ever, because pot ruins your life forever." If that's true, then why have our past three presidents fallen into that category? To put this another way: nowadays even stoners can grow up to be president in America.
But the real question is what will the Obama administration do now? What response will they choose to Washington and Colorado when these states try to implement the will of the voters? Will Obama (and his Attorney General, whomever it turns out to be) choose a hard line and a heavy hand? Or will they attempt to work with the states to allow some legal experimentation on the issue?
These are serious questions. This is a serious discussion. Too many people's lives have been destroyed not by marijuana itself by marijuana's illegality to laugh at this issue. While it's pretty easy to see what would happen if Obama decides to continue to be heavy-handed on enforcement (in other words: "more of the same, only harsher"), it's at least worth speculating on how things could change for the better.
There are three paths I can see the Justice Department could take, should they decide to even partially honor the wishes of Colorado and Washington voters. The first would be a memo from the Justice Department headquarters, to all U.S. Attorneys. We've already had two significant memos from Obama's Justice Department on the subject, the first signaling they were backing off on medical marijuana, and the second where they decided to get all "Nancy Reagan" on the issue -- which led to the crackdown. A third memo could spell out exactly what the federal response should be in states which legalize marijuana -- both now, and in the future. "Let the experiment take place" would be the basic message of such a memo. The memo route may be the easiest to take, because it is purely an Executive Branch function -- Congress would not be involved, and even President Obama could distance himself from it somewhat. The state of Washington is already taking the lead, legally, on this front, as district attorneys announce that -- even in advance of the new law taking place -- they are dropping all low-level prosecutions for possession of marijuana which are already in the pipeline. It's a "get out of jail free" card for hundreds and hundreds of people. If the Justice Department told the federal attorneys to, in essence, do the same thing and refuse to prosecute cases, then things could change for the better without any other federal action.
The second possible route is already in progress. There's a case being decided right now in federal court where the technical classification of marijuana is being challenged. Reclassifying marijuana from a substance which "has no accepted medical use" to one which does have accepted medical use could change things for the better in all the states -- now over one-third of the total United States -- where medical marijuana laws already exist. Moving marijuana from "Schedule I" to "Schedule II" would ease the legal pressure considerably, although it wouldn't solve the problem Colorado and Washington's new laws present. But it would be a big step in the right direction. And, once again, it could be changed in two very easy ways. The first would be if the federal government lost in court -- and then accepted the ruling, and refused to appeal it to any higher court. The second is even easier, because the Attorney General can change this classification with his own signature. Again, no action from Congress or even the White House would be necessary for this to happen.
There's a third way now being drafted, which would be to pass a law in Congress which allowed states to "opt out" of the federal anti-drug laws -- solely for marijuana -- if their citizens voted to do so (as Colorado and Washington have already done). This is being put together by three Congressmen from Colorado, but the chances that it'll pass both houses are really anyone's guess right now.
Which is the real reason I'm writing all this today, because one pundit has launched an effort to pressure the White House to support such legislation. David Sirota, who lives in Colorado, has proposed a petition on the White House website to do just that. The White House solicits questions online, but only the ones with enough support require them to answer. Within a certain time period, you need at least 25,000 people to support the petition. Sirota's petition got 10,000 in the first 24 hours, and is now up to 17,514. I'd like to encourage everyone to show some support for Sirota's proposal, even though with the rate it is gaining support, it'll probably reach the 25,000 threshold within a day or so (see previous comment about pro-marijuana types being online). Click on over to the White House and add your name to the growing list.
It's time to start having this serious conversation about the ridiculously-harsh federal laws on a substance mankind has been using for thousands of years. David Sirota's effort is one way for the public to demand such a serious conversation. Instead of just being laughed off, once again. Once we've all gotten our Cheech and Chong jokes out of our system, we can begin to seriously address how we can move forward as a country on this issue. Sirota's action sets up a classic one of these, in fact: "Dave's not here -- he's over at the White House site, forcing the president to give us an answer on what marijuana policy changes we can expect in his second term." Dave, indeed, has "got the stuff" on this one.
Far out, man.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant