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The Presidency Goes to Pot

Irresponsible Obama.

Feb 3, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 20 • By JOHN P. WALTERS
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What if we did simply treat marijuana like alcohol or cigarettes? Despite all the anticigarette measures, there are still over 57 million smokers, and there are 135 million drinkers. Can we expect marijuana use to approach these magnitudes? Such questions do not seem to occur to the president.

Instead, Obama makes two moral arguments that get to the heart of the distortion in today’s attitudes about illegal drugs. First, Remnick says,

What clearly does trouble him is the radically disproportionate arrests and incarcerations for marijuana among minorities. “Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do,” he said. “And African-American kids and Latino kids are more likely to be poor and less likely to have the resources and the support to avoid unduly harsh penalties.”

The charge is ludicrous. No one gets “locked up for smoking pot”—federal mandatory minimums don’t even kick in below 220 pounds, and only 9 percent of federal marijuana convictions involve African Americans. No part of law enforcement in America targets pot-smoking kids or simple users of any age. No one is being frisked on the streets for the purpose of finding marijuana users. 

There are two major causes of drug possession charges in our criminal justice system. The first is trafficking, which may well be pled down to a lesser charge. The second is the commission of violent or property crime, when the individual at the time of apprehension and arrest for that crime is found to have drugs in their possession. In a significant portion of these cases, the offender may be charged with the lesser drug possession rather than the more serious underlying crime. If such possession laws were repealed, the probable effect would actually be longer sentences based on charges for the original offense. 

What Obama evades is the fact that there are inequities in the demography of criminal offenders, which are also reflected in the demographics of their victims. He implies this is a matter of racism, but, while all the possible causes are not understood with certainty, the most probable is the breakdown of family structure and related institutions, which are especially important in the formation of healthy young men.

Obama also seems to have missed one of the most promising public policy developments of the past two decades—drug courts, which drive tens of thousands of users into treatment every year. Law enforcement has become the single greatest source of referral to treatment of any institution in America. Our justice system, including more than 2,600 drug courts, now sorts out criminals who are not violent threats but engage in crimes because they are addicted and tries to get them clean and sober. It does this with considerable success, given the challenges of addiction. Instead of expressing pride in this achievement, Obama utterly misrepresents the reality. Inmates in state prisons make up the largest single segment of the prison population, and fewer than one-half of 1 percent are sentenced for possession of marijuana. In fact, drug offenses of all types have been declining as a percentage of arrests and sentences at both the federal and state levels.

Obama’s second moral argument may be an even more powerful force in suppressing debate than his false charge of racism. The Remnick interview includes this comment from the president:

“[W]e should not be locking up kids or individual users for long stretches of jail time when some of the folks who are writing those laws have probably done the same thing.” Accordingly, he said of the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington that “it’s important for it to go forward because it’s important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished.”

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