Don’t assume that President Obama is terribly upset about the misbehavior of his Secret Service protectors in Colombia. The president now knows that a well-timed scandal can be a very useful thing.
As Obama begins to gear up his re-election campaign in earnest - a recent Rolling Stone interview was titled “Ready for the Fight” - he’s reaching out to young voters, one of the key blocs that put him in office four years ago.
After all, he wasn’t slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon last week for the benefit of people like me. In the same vein, his picking a fight with Republicans about student loans is calculated to rally college students and recent graduates to the president’s side.
The president is much less keen to talk with young voters about marijuana and his role as commander in chief in the war on drugs.
In the Rolling Stone interview, Obama told publisher Jann Wenner, “What I specifically said was that we were not going to prioritize prosecutions of persons who are using medical marijuana. I never made a commitment that somehow we were going to give carte blanche to large-scale producers and operators of marijuana - and the reason is, because it's against federal law. I can't nullify congressional law.” He confessed that a gray area exists in the form of large-scale dispensaries that, he said, “may supply medical marijuana users, but in some cases may also be supplying recreational users.”
It isn’t only medical marijuana users, however, who feel left out in the cold by the president’s position. While they, along with some of Obama’s more liberal supporters, have said they feel betrayed by the administration’s continued raids of dispensaries in states where medical marijuana is legal, Latin American leaders are calling for a new drug war strategy.
At the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Obama rejected legalization as an answer to the trafficking that is spreading violence and corruption on both sides of the border (though mostly outside the United States). “I personally and my administration's position is that legalization is not the answer, that in fact if you think about how it would end up operating, the capacity of a large-scale drug trade to dominate certain countries, if they were allowed to operate legally without any constraint could be just as corrupting, if not more corrupting than the status quo,” he said, according to the BBC.
The president’s argument is that if narcotics becomes just another big Latin American business, like mining, coffee or tourism, the industry will be “just as corrupting, if not more corrupting” as the status quo, which currently leads to the decimation of honest businesses, the murder of journalists, and the buying or burying of prosecutors and judges.
Obama’s comment, divorced from reality, reflects an American drug policy of “just say no, and spend more money on enforcement,” which has accomplished nothing constructive in over four decades. Drugs remain freely available in the U.S., while the drug war’s costs to societies in producing and transit countries mount.
At the Cartagena conference, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina called for “a responsible, serious dialogue in which we scientifically analyse what is happening with the war on drugs.” This is not a dialogue Obama wants to have, but he does not want American voters to focus on his slavish devotion to failed policies, either.
Enter the Secret Service scandal, which came along just in time to push the drug issue out of the headlines.
By late last week, nine Secret Service members had resigned or been forced out of the agency because of misconduct involving alleged prostitutes. Two dozen people, half Secret Service members and half military personnel, came under investigation in the scandal. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has called for an independent review; Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., countered that such a demand was purely political maneuvering.
The president did some maneuvering of his own. He was happy to talk about the Secret Service in his Jimmy Fallon appearance, where, according to CNN, Obama said that “99.9%” of Secret Service agents do great work, and “[…] a couple of knuckleheads shouldn’t detract from what they do.”
The president is not in any hurry to explain to college students that he runs a drug lottery, which a huge percentage of them play. In most cases, recreational marijuana usage won’t hurt their careers or their futures. Occasionally, though, someone who is in the wrong place at the wrong time will find his or her life changed forever because of an arrest on a drug charge.
The hypocrisy is stunning. We have had three baby boomer presidents, and though the last two have avoided getting caught up in President Clinton’s rationalizations, we can safely assume all three did, in fact, inhale. They all went on to preside over drug policies that ruin other people’s lives for doing the same.
I’ve written before about the reasons legalization is overdue. I’m still waiting for the government to treat marijuana like milk, whose producers insist they cannot survive without federal price supports, or to acknowledge that cannabis does, in fact, have medical applications. In the meantime, it is clear that prohibition isn’t working. Even those who do not support total legalization are beginning to suggest more sensible alternatives in the face of such obvious failure.
The president doesn’t want to talk to young voters about pot. A fortuitously timed sex scandal means that, for now, he does not have to.