The politics of Presidential pot statements

Note: This post is about the dirty underbelly of political maneuvering regarding federal cannabis politics. If you want to believe that people don’t make statements for political purposes, skip this post.

As everyone knows, President Obama made a statement of factual emptiness to Barbara Walters. In it, he completely failed to address the critical thing about the Washington/Colorado votes (distribution) and focused on the portion that the federal government could never actually do (arrest users).

You can bet that every part of what he said was analyzed in advance — not to clarify policy, but rather to provide maximum political benefit (least amount of pissing off of contributors and voters with differing agendas). So he said nothing in a way that sounded vaguely pleasing.

This was an attempt by the President to eat his cake and have it too. Act Presidential without acting.

So what should reformers do? Let him get away with it? Of course not. If he’s going to be vague and not define the status, then reformers should define it for him. This keeps him from getting away with avoiding political damage while leaving policy in unacceptable limbo.

So if he won’t define it…

[Brad] Pitt released a joint statement along with fellow The House I Live In executive producers Danny Glover, John Legend and Russell Simmons, stating, “President Obama should be commended for expressing the will of the people in Colorado and Washington. Our jails are overburdened with nonviolent drug users in this country, too often serving harsher sentences than violent criminals. This defies all common and economic sense. The President’s statement reflects a saner and more sensible drug policy, and a step away from the decades long failed war on drugs.”

So, what’s the President supposed to do? Walk back his non-statement? Say “Oh, I really didn’t mean to give the impression that I favored a saner and more sensible drug policy. I really want the same oppression we’ve always had. I was just saying that because they told me we need Colorado for the mid-terms.” The most they can do is have some former “official” get as much opposition press as possible with no confirmation from the White House.

When enough reform organizations and media pick up on this meme, the conventional wisdom in the population will be that President Obama has pledged not to interfere in Colorado and Washington.

Then, when and if the feds come down on Colorado and Washington operations, it will appear as though the President has gone back on his word. That is, quite frankly, the price that the President pays for not being willing to be forthcoming or transparent about policy in the first place.

Clearly I haven’t been doing my part in this maneuver (this post is a prime example of that), but I understand the politics of it.

This is, of course, not the first time this process has occurred. The Holder memo regarding medical marijuana was a prime example.

I always get a kick out of Mark Kleiman’s surprise at the inability of reformers to understand the memo…

When Holder said that, marijuana advocates nationwide, and specifically the marijuana industry in California, gleefully misinterpreted him as having declared open season. They then purported to have terribly hurt feelings when DEA and the U.S. Attorneys did in fact go after large-scale criminal enterprises in the “medical marijuana” business. Prominent pot advocates bitterly critized Obama (but never the much more hawkish Romney) this year’s campaign.

There may be some advocates who actually misinterpreted the memo, but most of them are far smarter than that, and they realized that the void left by the vagueness of the memo was an opportunity. By filling that void with their “interpretation,” they changed the conventional wisdom and actually made Obama look like the bad guy when the DEA charged in as they always do. There were some advocates who took the ultimate risk in this political game and have ended up in prison.

But the result is that public views have changed and the President was damaged politically by it — factors that may have helped usher in this new era of reform.

And of course reformers didn’t bash Romney. He wasn’t President. If he had won, they would have done so immediately. Bashing Romney would be the equivalent of giving Obama a pass for his drug policies. Reformers need to make it clear that there is a cost to trying to have it both ways.

Now when you see a piece praising President Obama for his bold drug policy, you’ll understand what may be behind it.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

35 Responses to The politics of Presidential pot statements

  1. Scott Morgan says:

    Nice, Pete. This is basically what a lot of us were thinking after the Holder Memo. I was repeatedly accused at the time, along with many of my colleagues, of being mindlessly in love with Obama. But it wasn’t just reformers crediting the President with ending the raids, it was the press too. Look at NYT that day:

    Controversy over Obama’s attacks on mmj was fueled considerably by the perception that it was a betrayal and not just bad policy. But we couldn’t have played the betrayal card if we’d just been talking shit about him the entire time.

    Still, I don’t know how this carries over to the present. We can’t give him the benefit of the doubt as we did in ’09, and the strategic implications of doing so are less clear. A precedent has been established that Obama can’t be trusted on marijuana policy. Clapping for him at this point risks reinforcing the worst of what he’s done.

    • claygooding says:

      As far as I can tell Scott no politician can be trusted on any policy,their support or opposition to any issue is directly proportional to the amount of lobby money received and any conflict in what their mouth is saying and the policies they actually vote for is just political maneuvering.

  2. The longer the President and the Justice Department stay their hand the better it looks for Obama at this point.

    Here is the point = Billions are at stake for funding the next round of useless drug war garbage. As soon as the money is secured the snakes will come out of their holes, and I would bet that no amount of psychology through the press at this point will over ride what the money will be paying for.

    I think the stick and the carrot will only work so far. The bigger carrot is this damn budget they are working on. Whatever we do at this point, we just need to continue to be loud. We are not the ones that are ducking right now.

  3. kaptinemo says:

    The problem here is Obama’s handlers, the banksters.

    Obama is faced with the classic “Scylla and Charybdis” move. His masters are wealthy because of drug prohibition filling their bank vaults with filthy lucre. The majority of drug prohibition is comprised of cannabis suppression. The majority of the electorate want cannabis suppression to end, in effect ending drug prohibition. There’s over than a 150 MILLION more of them than there are banksters, and they’re getting increasingly angry. What to do?

    With the latest HSBC bank scandal essentially saying that you can’t arrest banksters for laundering dirty money, while millions have had their lives ruined by similar arrests, the public is having its’ nose rubbed in the two-tier justice system they always suspected but could never prove existed. Now they have proof…and a lot of people are pissed off.

    This is one time that the Powers-That-Be may just have to take a back seat, lest their hands in a lot of tills be suddenly revealed to that increasingly angry public.

  4. kaptinemo says:

    Oops. Wrong scandal. But you can bet it’s related.

    • Dante says:

      Kinda sad, actually.

      So many banking scandals that it is hard to tell them apart. So many violations of trust, so much money involved. So many “elite” people doing nasty things.

      All have one thing in common – nobody goes to jail.

  5. kaptinemo says:

    This gives an idea of just how corrosive the situation is visa-a-vis the hopelessly-corrupted Justice Department. The most wealthy and powerful are caught, red-handed…but they choose to go after cannabists, instead. And we pay taxes for this?

  6. Jose says:

    What Obama was thinking when he made the empty commenting is “We are not quite ready to legalize marijuana. A few thousand peasants need to be chased off their land near the international border and another 50-60 thousand Mexicans need to be murdered to get rid of some of the extremely poor. After we redistribute the land to our campaign contributors then we can seriously think about legalizing marijuana.”

  7. Freeman says:

    I would probably never have come up with this astute observation on my own. Many thanks, Pete!

  8. someguy says:

    I’m sorry, but it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference what the president says. The DEA controls a $40 billion budget right now, it has way more power than he does. The DEA will do whatever it wants no matter what Obama says.

    Article I’d like to see: Does the Drug Czar have more power than the President?

    • Duncan20903 says:


      The DEAs budget is just over $2 billion.

      I’ve really never understood why people who think that we’re fighting a lost cause even bother to think about it, much less comment. If I believed that the powers that be had as much control of reality as does someguy I sure wouldn’t be wasting my time.

      So someguy, ‘splain it to me please. What is the purpose of making statements like the one you’ve made above. Are we supposed say, “D’oh, time to give up!”? If that’s your agenda then you’re in the wrong place because we’ve made demonstrable progress towards our goal in the face of the Feds and other elected or appointed authorities. As a matter of fact we’ve got the mothertuckers on the ropes bleeding, and the ref is getting ready to call it a TKO.

      If you want to be a defeatist it’s your prerogative. But I think that it’s just plain silly.

      • Peter says:

        I’m guessing that Someguy may have used $40 billion to refer to the size of an aspect of the black economy “controlled” by the DEA. Like price-guarantees for cartels in the cannabis market?

        • someguy says:

          What ya say, Pete? I got the facts @

          and because i’m a little late in getting back to ya’ll, I get ignored and Duncan gets a pass, even though he’s wrong. Yep, that’s fair and balanced alright…

        • someguy says:

          Well, that’s just splitting hairs. The fact is if it were not for the DEA there would be no “war on drugs” to begin with, and therefore, the tax-payers would not have to foot a $40 billion bill this year. But go ahead and split all the hairs you want. The point remains: the “war on drugs” budget this year was $40 billion of tax-payer money. The DEA are the prime drug-warriors and their own cheerleaders and every cop that kisses up to them knows it.

        • someguy says:

          Since you were nice enough to terminate this argument by discontinuing the reply link in the last post, I decided to post my reply to your last reply where i could. No doubt it will be properly ignored by all.

      • someguy says:

        It’s at 39.6 billion right now. Check it out for yourselves at

        • someguy says:

          I dunno why i bother to waste my time

        • Pete says:

          someguy — the 39.6 billion is total federal and state spending on the wod. The DEA doesn’t even control all of the federal spending. The DEA is one agency among many that has a drug war budget, including the coast guard, military and other branches of the DOJ.

          The DEA is one of the worst agencies out there and I’d like to see them go away, but they aren’t unlimited in power as far as I know. Yes, they have a lot of lobbying power, but their director can be fired by the President at any time.

      • someguy says:

        God, Duncan, you have so missssed my point. Why do i bother to waste my time?

  9. Dante says:

    Sooner or later (probably sooner), the anti-prohibitionists will begin to push/pull on the electoral numbers enough that the politicians will listen. Then, as always occurs, there will be a mad rush of Congress-critters telling us how THEY ALONE are responsible for the end of the drug war. Once again, they “saved” us.

    Let’s not let them get away with it, OK?

    • Duncan20903 says:


      I think letting them take credit for it is just fine and dandy just so long as it gets done. How the heck would you propose that we stop it anyway?

    • kaptinemo says:

      Dante, I look at it this way: they can take all the credit they want, but the fact of the matter is that they only began to feel the heat after the election. They’ll feel even more heat in the next one.

      It’s going to become very obvious, if it hasn’t already, that change is happening from the bottom up. And that fact is also being recorded in a place that cannot be ‘edited’…the Internet.

      It’s said that the newest converts sing the loudest in church. We’ve been in ‘church’ a long time, and they won’t fool anyone but the inherently foolish. It will be very easy for future fact-checkers to determine the trajectories of the pols’ efforts, and the time of their ‘conversions’.

  10. primus says:

    Could it be an error to use the term ‘anti-prohibitionists’? It seems so negative. Perhaps Pro-Freedomists or something like that would be more positive sounding. Not criticizing, just saying.

  11. Tony Aroma says:

    I think your logic is flawed. Obama has no problem with “redefining” what he previously said. When people continued to get raided after the Ogden memo, Obama just said that people misinterpreted the memo and he never gave them carte blanche to flout federal law. Why would something like a statement from a celebrity carry more weight than an official memo? And doing so did not in any way hurt him politically. He’s still in the White House after all.

    But you are correct. This time he handled it better, saying nothing at all. So regardless of how others might interpret what he said in an interview, he really said nothing he would have to backpedal on when the raids start.

    Although one thing the president did this time that was new was pass the buck to Congress. His hands are tied until they change the law. So whatever happens, the president is not responsible. I’d say he has all bases covered this time. Or so he thinks.

  12. darkcycle says:

    UGH, flu.

  13. I liked Brad Pitt better when he was banging Jennifer Aniston…

  14. joe from Lowell says:

    You write as if President Obama is upset by, or bothered by, this dynamic. (The claim that he was “politically damaged” is some rather implausible wishful thinking. Did you see his margin of victory in California?)

    He could, of course, be making clear and aggressive statements of policy if he wanted to avoid letting the anti-prohibitionists move the agenda like this. Have you given any thought to the question of why he’s choosing not to do that?

    Sometimes, the best thing a politician can do is stay out of the way.

Comments are closed.