One of the President's answers during this event, however, to a highly popular question which was posed in many different ways, was, to say the least, insulting. The question was why we continue to maintain our complete prohibition on marijuana. Some of the questions addressed the issue from a humanitarian perspective:
"As a person with Multiple Sclerosis, I have many other MS friends who use marijuana just to feel some relief from their bodies. When can pressure be placed to reclassify Cannabis from a Schedule 1 drug (no medical benefit) to Schedule 5?"
Others from an economic and pragmatic perspective:
"Why is marijuana still illegal? Cigarettes and alcohol are far more harmful, and with the taxes put on the legal distribution of marijuana the US could make millions"
"Has the administration given any thought to legalizing marijuana, as a cash crop to fuel the economy? Why not make available, regulate, and tax something that that about 10 million Americans use regularly and is less harmful than tobacco or alcohol."
Some pointed out that the country had an analogous experience with alcohol prohibition:
"Growing up I have noticed many around me always talk about legalization of marijuana, and I always thought, why not put a tax stamp on it. If marijuana was legalized it could really change a lot of things. America had the same problem with Alcohol."This is an issue which has been around for a long time, and has rarely been addressed by mainstream politicians, at least when they were in a position to do something about it. Often, it is treated as a triviality, a serious cause only for stoned college kids. Bill Clinton expressed support for decriminalization when he no longer had to worry about reelection. Michael Bloomberg admitted to using marijuana and enjoying it, as has President Obama.
Now, however, perhaps more than at any other time, the seriousness of this issue is abundantly clear. Illegal marijuana cultivation is harming our environment. Marijuana prohibition is preventing people from accessing a medicine that has in some cases proven superior to those legally available for people suffering from serious illness. The U.S. prision population, bolstered by non-violent drug offenders, now comprises a quarter of the world's total prison population. Finally, violence fueled by criminal drug cartels, supported in part by the cultivation of illegal marijuana, has killed countless people in the United States and Mexico, and has prompted the Secretary of State to promise millions of dollars in additional aid, largely for military style weapons, on top of the billions already committed. All of this, to prevent people from using a drug which has never been known to kill anyone. For comparison, acetaminophen(the active ingredient in Tylenol), kills around 450 people a year.
So, in light of all of these sobering facts, one could expect a similarly sober response from the President. Here it is:
Imagine if he had given such a response to any other question of such importance. Consider the following hypothetical response:
THE PRESIDENT: Three point five million people voted. I have to say that there was one question that was voted on that ranked fairly high and that was whether legalizing marijuana would improve the economy -- (laughter) -- and job creation. And I don't know what this says about the online audience -- (laughter) -- but I just want -- I don't want people to think that -- this was a fairly popular question; we want to make sure that it was answered. The answer is, no, I don't think that is a good strategy -- (laughter) -- to grow our economy. (Applause.)
So -- all right.DR. BERNSTEIN: Thank you for clearing that up.
Three point five million people voted. I have to say that there was one question that was voted on that ranked fairly high and that was whether giving returning veterans access to services that would help them reintegrate into their communities -- (laughter) -- and obtain jobs would be a good idea. And I don't know what this says about the online audience -- (laughter) -- but I just want -- I don't want people to think that -- this was a fairly popular question; we want to make sure that it was answered. The answer is, no, I don't think that is a good strategy -- (laughter). (Applause.)Make no mistake. This answer is no more insulting than the one he gave about marijuana prohibition. Most of us have the luxury of treating the issue as a joke. Others, like those with spouses, children, or siblings in prison for marijuana related crimes, those suffering from ailments for which there is no equally effective treatment, and those living in areas where drug cartels are active who have been killed or lost loved ones in drug related violence, do not.
President Obama is, of course, entitled to his opinion on this issue, but those people suffering as a result of this country's, and now this President's, policies on marijuana, are entitled to a cogent answer to their questions, and an explanation as to why making it somewhat harder for people to smoke marijuana is worth so much money, so many lives, and so much suffering.
The inappropriateness of Obama's response to this question was not entirely overlooked in the media: Andrew Sullivan posted the following in the Daily Dish:
I'm tired of having the Prohibition issue treated as if it's trivial or a joke. It is neither. It is about freedom and it's deadly serious. As for your online audience, Mr president, have you forgotten who got you elected?However, the treatment of this issue as a triviality seems by and large to have been continued. The New York Times spent more time discussing who voted for the question to be asked than on the substance, or lack thereof, of the answer, while a Los Angeles Times Blog offered the following:
Though some of us expected Obama to sidestep the politically sensitive topic, he chose instead to take it head on.The questions posted regarding Marijuana, at least the better ones, did not just ask whether or not President Obama thought it should be legalized, so his saying that he doesn't was not an answer, but an evasion. The questions instead were, by and large, of the form "Given X, why Y?" where X could represent the people who have been or will be killed in drug related violence, the people who are or will suffer because they can't obtain medicinal marijuana, the people who are or will be or have family members be imprisoned for non-violent marijuana-related crimes, or the billions of dollars spent in the furtherance of prohibition. Y, of course, represents keeping marijuana illegal. So, Obama was given the question "Given X, why Y" His answer? "Y"