At first, Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor said that the candidate had "always" supported decriminalizing marijuana, suggesting his 2004 statement was correct. Then after the Times posted copies of the video on its Web site today, his campaign reversed course and declared he does not support eliminating criminal penalties for marijuana possession and use.
"If you're convicted of a crime, you should be punished, but that we are sending far too many first-time, non-violent drug users to prison for very long periods of time, and that we should rethink those laws," Vietor said. The spokesman blamed confusion over the meaning of decriminalization for the conflicting answers. [Washington Times]
Indeed, as Pete Guither notes, no one is really sure what "decriminalization" actually means, which likely explains the Obama campaign's ultimate unwillingness to be associated with the term.
And that tells you everything you need to know about why meaningful debate of our marijuana laws is continuously excluded from mainstream politics. Since the relevant vocabulary words have no universally accepted definition, candidates attempting to discuss marijuana would be forced to use entire sentences or even paragraphs to express their opinions. This is not something they will do voluntarily.
Note, for example, that everything we know about the major candidates' drug policy positions has emerged as a result of someone explicitly asking them. The tortured evolution of Obama's views on marijuana occurred only because this information was demanded of him. First, Bill Maher forced Chris Dodd to discuss the issue, resulting in Dodd's endorsement of marijuana decrim. Then, Tim Russert asked other democratic contenders whether they disagreed with Dodd. The front-runners sheepishly raised their hands in opposition to even mild marijuana reform. Finally, when the Washington Times forced Obama to clarify his conflicting positions, Obama's campaign briefly endorsed reform before finally concluding that they opposed decrim even though they're still not sure what it is.
The conventional wisdom among my colleagues seems to be that Obama "gets" the drug war issue. Everything he says and does can be attributed to his presidential aspirations, I'm told, and we should be grateful that he at least flirts with criminal justice reform. That's fine as far as it goes, but I continue to question the fundamental political wisdom of refusing to talk about marijuana. It's an issue people care about. It's an issue that gets headlines. And it's an issue that's been handled about as poorly as one could possibly imagine for a long long time.
I believe that marijuana reform, properly and passionately framed by an eloquent and viable candidate, could prove to be far less toxic than the brilliant campaign strategists in Washington D.C. collectively assume. And it is nauseating to consider that this terrible war on marijuana users owes its survival as much to a flawed political calculus as to the actual beliefs and convictions of those who sustain it.
(This blog post was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)