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Obama and Marijuana: Then and Now

What was your favorite badaboom in President Obama’s routine at the White House Correspondents dinner? Here’s mine, from when he was talking about how “the media landscape is changing so rapidly”:

You can’t keep up with it. I mean, I remember when BuzzFeed was just something I did in college around two A.M. (Laughter.) It’s true! (Laughter.)

obama marijuana policy law jokeObama’s joke shows how far we’ve come since the not-so-long-ago days when standard operating procedure for a politician outed on pot smoking was to plead “youthful experimentation,” express contrition, and boast modestly of having straightened up and flown right. This President, as far as I know, has never said any such thing; he has no apparent regrets in that department. His joke allowed the tuxedoed, evening-gowned, middle-aged audience at the Washington Hilton to feel, for a precious moment, hip. The subtext was that smoking pot, whether a lot or a little, is just a normal part of growing up—maybe even, for some, part of being grown up. Marijuana doesn’t seem to have ruined his life, which has been pretty successful so far. Nor has it done much to blight the lives of the other people in the Hilton ballroom, most of whom, like the rest of the media, political, and Hollywood élites, have smoked pot, too.

We are now on our third straight (so to speak) President who, the evidence more than suggests, have personally flouted the laws against having possession of marijuana. But the incumbent is the first who has an irrefutable history as an “enthusiastic” (his characterization, not mine) stoner. If you read “Dreams from My Father,” then you know that Obama liked not only the drug’s psychoactive effects but also what might be called its democratizing qualities:

I had discovered that it didn’t make any difference if you smoked reefer in the white classmate’s sparkling new van, or in the dorm room with some brother you’d met down at the gym, or on the beach with a couple of Hawaiian kids who had dropped out of school…. Everybody was welcome into the club of disaffection. And if the high didn’t solve whatever it was that was getting you down, it could at least help you laugh at the world’s ongoing folly and see through all the hypocrisy and bullshit and cheap moralism.

David Maraniss, in “Barack Obama: The Story,” provides some pungent detail, helpfully summarized by none other than BuzzFeed. Young Barry, leader of a Punahou School clique styling itself the Choom Gang, pioneered “T.A.”—short for Total Absorption, the polar opposite of “I didn’t inhale.” Among other recreations, the future President was into “roof hits,” a non-wasteful method of smoking pot in a car (usually that white classmate’s V.W. bus, dubbed the Choomwagon) with the windows rolled up. Once the joint was reduced to a roach but some smoke was still trapped overhead, he and his friends would crane their necks upward to whoosh in the last wisps. He was also adept at “interceptions,” i.e., sneaking an extra toke when it wasn’t his turn—a risky stratagem, punishable, if noticed, by being skipped over on the next pass-around.

The problem with the joke, as with all those knowing chuckles at the Hilton, is that a great many people are suffering on account of marijuana—just not from the weed itself. Like young Obama, people who smoke marijuana do so because they find that it alleviates suffering (psychological, spiritual, physical), or simply because it helps them relax and enjoy themselves. Marijuana-associated suffering enters the picture only when prohibition does:

Police prosecuted 858,408 persons for marijuana violations in 2009, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s annual Uniform Crime Report.… Of those charged with marijuana violations, approximately 88 percent (758,593 Americans) were charged with possession only. The remaining 99,815 individuals were charged with “sale/manufacture,” a category that includes virtually all cultivation offenses.

By Hendrik Hertzberg
Read the full story at newyorker.com

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