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Obama's Pot Problem

Now that states have started legalizing recreational marijuana, will the president continue the government’s war on weed?

Illustration by Victor Juhasz
December 7, 2012 8:00 AM ET

When voters in Colorado and Washington state legalized recreational marijuana in November, they thought they were declaring a cease-fire in the War on Drugs. Thanks to ballot initiatives that passed by wide margins on Election Day, adults 21 or older in both states can now legally possess up to an ounce of marijuana. The new laws also compel Colorado and Washington to license private businesses to cultivate and sell pot, and to levy taxes on the proceeds. Together, the two states expect to reap some $600 million annually in marijuana revenues for schools, roads and other projects. The only losers, in fact, will be the Mexican drug lords, who currently supply as much as two-thirds of America's pot.

Drug reformers can scarcely believe their landslide victories at the polls. "People expected this day would come, but most didn't expect it to come this soon," says Norm Stamper, a former Seattle police chief who campaigned for legalization. "This is the beginning of the end of prohibition."

But the war over pot may be far from over. Legalization has set Colorado and Washington on a collision course with the Obama administration, which has shown no sign of backing down on its full-scale assault on pot growers and distributors. Although the president pledged to go easy on medical marijuana – now legal in 18 states – he has actually launched more raids on state-sanctioned pot dispensaries than George W. Bush, and has threatened to prosecute state officials who oversee medical marijuana as if they were drug lords. And while the administration has yet to issue a definitive response to the two new laws, the Justice Department was quick to signal that it has no plans to heed the will of voters. "Enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act," the department announced in November, "remains unchanged."

The 10 Best Politicians on Pot

A big reason for the get-tough stance, say White House insiders, is that federal agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration are staffed with hard-liners who have built their careers on going after pot. Michele Leonhart, a holdover from the Bush administration whom Obama has appointed to head the DEA, continues to maintain that pot is as dangerous as heroin – a position unsupported by either science or experience. When pressed on the point at a congressional hearing, Leonhart refused to concede any distinction between the two substances, lamely insisting that "all illegal drugs are bad."

"There are not many friends to legalization in this administration," says Kevin Sabet, director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida who served the White House as a top adviser on marijuana policy. In fact, the politician who coined the term "drug czar" – Joe Biden – continues to guide the administration's hard-line drug policy. "The vice president has a special interest in this issue," Sabet says. "As long as he is vice president, we're very far off from legalization being a reality."

There's no question that the votes in Colorado and Washington represent a historic shift in the War on Drugs. "This is a watershed moment," says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "People are standing up and saying that the drug war has gone too far." And drug reformers achieved the landmark victory with a creative new marketing blitz – one that sold legalization not to stoners, but to soccer moms.

The man behind Colorado's legalization campaign was Mason Tvert, a Denver activist who was radicalized against the drug war by two experiences as a teenager. First, in high school, a bout of binge drinking landed him in the hospital. Then, as a college freshman, he made what he believed was a healthier choice to smoke pot – only to get subpoenaed by a grand jury and grilled by campus police about his drug use. "It was ridiculous," Tvert recalls, "to be spending these law-enforcement resources worrying about whether a college student might or might not be using pot in his dorm room on the weekend."

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