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April 1, 2009 -- Chicago Tribune (IL)

Column: Obama Gets Hazy On Reefer Economics

By Clarence Page

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

For all of the keen intellect that President Barack Obama showed in his online town hall meeting, he didn't seem to know much about reefer economics.

When asked whether legalizing marijuana might be a stimulus for the economy and job creation, he played the question for laughs.

"I don't know what this says about the online audience . . .," he quipped as his studio audience chuckled and groaned. "But . . . this was a fairly popular question. We want to make sure that it was answered," he said.

Sure. So you could knock it, I thought.

Obama's response: "The answer is, no, I don't think that is a good strategy to grow our economy."

No stimulus? Hey, more than a few blinged-out, Escalade-driving pot dealers would dispute that notion. You want a "green" industry? Free the weed, dude.

Such is the call of pro-pot politicians like California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, who has proposed to legalize the weed, tax it and regulate it like booze. He estimates the move would generate $1 billion in revenue for the state's troubled budget and save $150 million in enforcement costs.

It's hard to argue with Ammiano's logic, but it's easy to make light of lighting up. Marijuana is, after all, funny. Few subjects inspire more bad puns from headline writers than those that, well, step on grass. A quick sample:

"Obama: Nope to dope." (Russia Today)

"Obama's marijuana buzz kill." (The Daily Beast online)

"Marijuana issue suddenly smoking hot." (Politico)

Like sex and sobriety, marijuana is funny because it is surrounded by so much hypocrisy. So is politics.

To listen to Obama's chortles, for example, you'd never guess that he is our third president in a row to have admitted to using marijuana back in his years of youthful indiscretion.

Bill Clinton says he tried it but "didn't inhale." Oh, sure. George W. Bush admitted to early pot use in a taped interview with a friend, but refuses to discuss it in public. Obama described his own teen drug use in poignant detail in his first memoir, but like countless other Baby Boomer dads he now shies shyly away from the subject.

Yet, you would not guess from his snarky town-hall attitude that only a week earlier his attorney general, Eric Holder, announced that the federal Drug Enforcement Administration would stop raiding and arresting users or dispensers of medicinal marijuana unless they violated both state and federal laws.

That means you, California, and a dozen other states that permit marijuana sales and possession for medicinal purposes with a doctor's recommendation.

Holder sensibly announced that DEA resources are too valuable in the war against dangerous drug lords to be raiding residents who otherwise are in compliance with state and local laws and standards. That would reverse the Bush administration's ridiculous scorched-earth pursuit that ignored the right of states to govern themselves in such matters.

Yet, convenient inconsistency is not limited to any one party or administration. A week after Holder's notice-and the same day that Obama laughed off the notion of legal reefers-DEA agents raided Emmalyn's California Cannabis Clinic, a licensed medical marijuana collective in San Francisco.

DEA spokesmen claimed Emmalyn's had violated local as well as federal law, but they didn't say how. Local officials said they didn't have a clue what the DEA was talking about.

Not laughing is Charles Lynch, a celebrated cause since his Morro Bay, Calif., medical marijuana dispensary was raided by the DEA in 2007. Two days before Obama's town hall meeting, a federal judge postponed Lynch's sentencing to await clarification of Team Obama's new hands-off approach.

Lynch, who has no criminal record and was welcomed by the local mayor and business community, should be set free. Instead he's in legal limbo, with both sides trying to make him a test case for their competing crusades.

Also not laughing are lawmakers in at least 10 states, including Illinois, who currently are debating whether and how they might join the 13 states where medical marijuana is legal.

If he really cares, Obama could end this reefer madness in much the same way that President Franklin Roosevelt ended the disastrous run of liquor prohibition in 1933. Prohibition had to go. It was too costly to enforce. It demoralized a public already beaten down by the Depression. It wasted a potential tax revenue-producing commodity by intruding unnecessarily into the private lives of otherwise law-abiding Americans. Sounds familiar.

Unlike Roosevelt, Obama does not have to amend the Constitution to end our marijuana confusion. He only has to get out of the way and allow the states to enforce their own drug laws. That's not a laughable notion. It's only sensible.

Clarence Page is a member of the Tribune's editorial board and blogs at

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