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Will Obama Cross the 'Reefer Rubicon'?

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The War on Drugs is ridiculous, behold the storm over Michael Phelps' partaking of marijuana, an illegal substance that at least two presidents have used. It is tragic, witness the raging gang violence along the Mexican border. Whether the Obama administration will downgrade the War on Drugs -- or even better, call it off -- remains to be seen.

But Obama's evident plan to make Gil Kerlikowske his "drug czar" (director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy) offers hope for more enlightened policy. As Seattle's police chief, Kerlikowske presided over a city that had virtually decriminalized small-scale possession of marijuana.

The War on Drugs is obscenely expensive. It enriches criminals and terrorists. And it messes up our foreign policy. Meanwhile, drugs grow ever cheaper and more potent.

While ending the war draws support from many political quarters, the broader public is hesitant to join in, especially when it comes to hard drugs. But polls show Americans more accepting of marijuana (perhaps because nearly half over the age of 12 say they've tried it). So easing up on marijuana would be the best place to start.

Kerlikowske has never revealed his inner thoughts on the subject, notes Norm Stamper, who preceded him as Seattle's police chief and now backs legalizing all drugs. But Seattle's casual attitude toward marijuana, verging on open embrace, is world famous, and on this score, Kerlikowske has gone with the flow.

A high point of Seattle's social calendar is Hempfest. The marijuana celebration draws over 150,000 attendees in August. The hundreds of police who cover Hempfest pay no mind to the pot consumption, which is open and heavy.

"The officers would much rather police Hempfest than (Seattle's) Mardi Gras," Stamper told me. Hempfest is a peaceful gathering, while the Mardi Gras activities can turn ugly from alcohol-fueled aggression.

In 2003, Seattle voters approved a measure that makes arrests for possessing small amounts of marijuana the lowest police priority -- lower than jaywalking. Washington State approved medical marijuana 10 years ago.

Is there a more absurd development than Mexican drug lords' decision to start growing pot in the United States, so as to avoid the hassle at the border? Marijuana is now the biggest cash crop in 12 states.

What does Obama think of all this? In 2004, he backed federal decriminalization of pot before an audience at Northwestern University.

But the closer Obama moved toward the White House, the more he fudged his views. In 2007, MSNBC moderator Tim Russert asked Democratic primary candidates whether they supported decriminalizing marijuana. No one raised a hand except Obama, who did so halfway, then pulled his hand down.

Days after the inauguration, federal agents raided several medical marijuana dispensaries in California, which legalized doctor-prescribed pot in 1996. The administration's out-of-the-gate response was, "The president believes that federal resources should not be used to circumvent state laws."

Given the economic crisis, few expect Obama to spend political capital crossing "the Reefer Rubicon," as Allen St. Pierre, head of NORML, puts it. NORML advocates for legalizing marijuana.

Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is loath to hand talking points to Republican cultural warriors. And though House Speaker Nance Pelosi hails from pot-friendly San Francisco, she too is staying away from the issue.

"Even best friends like (Massachusetts Rep.) Barney Frank say, 'Cool your jets,'" St. Pierre told me.

Nonetheless, Obama's choice of Kerlikowske as drug czar is seen as encouraging. "There really is a massive real-world difference between this man and Walters," St. Pierre said, referring to John Walters, Bush's enthusiastic Drug War general.

Will Obama cross the Reefer Rubicon? Not anytime soon. But he will almost certainly move America closer to the shoreline.

COPYRIGHT 2009 THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL CO.

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Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.

See Other Political Commentary.

See Other Commentaries by Froma Harrop.

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