I have long been a fan of President Barack Obama. I first got a chance to see him in Portland in 2007. Long before his raucous campaign was drawing tens of thousands to his events.
I just caught the President's recent interview with VICE, and as I watched the first 14 minutes I kept thinking to myself how thoughtful Obama is on every issue. How he is able to put these large scale problems into perspective, and how he takes the long term view rather than get caught up in the politics of the moment.
Then we got to the last segment of the interview: marijuana legalization.
Co-Founder of VICE and interviewer Shane Smith starts off by saying that marijuana legalization seems inevitable and that if President Obama were to legalize, that for young people it would be one of the biggest parts of his legacy. To which Obama responds by saying,
"First of all, it shouldn't be young people's biggest priority...sometimes on the White House website and petitions we get the same. So let's put it in perspective. Young people, I understand this is important to you, but you should be thinking about climate change, the economy, jobs, war and peace. Maybe way at the bottom you should be thinking about marijuana."
First of all, this is not millennial's biggest priority.
We care about the health of our planet, and the future of our economy (amongst many things). We just see marijuana legalization as a no-brainer that can be remedied quick. Without the need of high level negotiations like those needed with China to deal with climate change or with Iran to decrease nuclear tensions.
It's hard to tell young people who are productive members of our society, but face discrimination based on their drug of choice, that this should be at the bottom of their list of priorities. What about a college student on financial aid whose number one priority is getting a college education, but while out celebrating a successful week of finals gets busted for marijuana possession? The fact is that they could face losing their financial aid, which for a lot of families in the U.S. means the difference between getting a degree or working menial jobs in the service industry. Meanwhile, it is completely acceptable and sometimes encouraged for college students to get wasted on legal intoxicants like alcohol that kill 88,000 Americans annually.
Lots of issues that concern young people stem from the "War on Drugs" or as my friend Russ Belville calls it, the "War on (Certain American Citizens Using Non-Pharmaceutical, Non-Alcoholic, Tobacco-Free) Drugs". Including events that lead to the killings of young people like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. Just read Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow. The very idea that black men in the U.S. are automatically deemed suspicious and dangerous stems from the War on Drugs, which really is just a continuation of a systematic oppression born out of the Jim Crow south and the hundreds of years of slavery that preceded it.
The President talked about the need to separate out criminalization from encouraging its use, saying that the criminal justice system is heavily skewed towards cracking down on non-violent drug use. He also warned against decriminalization and legalization being seen as "panaceas", asking if people felt the same way about meth, coke, crack or heroine.
For the sake of this blog, let's separate out marijuana from the other drugs (although I personally believe that all drug use should at least be decriminalized). To the President's point, very few people are encouraging the use of marijuana, but even if someone was, marijuana is still objectively safer than legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco.
I assume that when the President talks about "encouraging its use", he means having an industry that promotes its product. Which goes to his point during the interview that young people should be more concerned about the economy and jobs than they are about marijuana. Obama has continuously downplayed the economic impact of the cannabis industry, and I think he significantly underestimates how many jobs this economic sector stands ready to create. Not your typical, minimum wage service industry jobs, but jobs that provide union-wages and benefits. This is an industry that is predominantly hiring young people, and from my experience is also being ran by young people. Some of the great entrepreneurs of the future are currently in the cannabis industry.
Why at a time when the political dialogue is centered around the need to create jobs are we denying the rise of the "fastest growing industry" in America?
Also, where are the conservatives on this issue? Want to talk about "uncertainty in the marketplace"? Talk to dispensary owners that are unable to get access to bank accounts. Ask them about 280E, and their inability to deduct business expenses the same as any normal business. Want to talk about keeping the government out of the doctor/patient relationship? Talk to the marijuana refugees who are up rooting their lives to move out West to states where their children have access to the only medicine that has been proven to help them. Want to talk about letting localities govern themselves without the interference of the federal government? Talk to the citizens of the nation's capital, where it is now legal to possess and use marijuana in private...but it's not legal to buy or sell it (thanks to Rep. Andy Harris).
Obama acknowledged that marijuana is becoming a bi-partisan issue, but I think he underestimates how powerful this is. Just last week one of the first pieces of legislation ever to deal with marijuana in the Senate was introduced by Democratic Senators Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand, as well as Republican Senator Rand Paul. The CARERS Act would end the federal prohibition of medical marijuana, leaving it up to individual states to decide whether or not to get in between a patient and their doctor.
The GOP which is struggling with younger voters, is quickly looking to make this issue theirs. Rand Paul is leading the way in the Senate, Dana Rohrabacher has become a champion in the House, and hopeful Presidential candidate Ted Cruz even said that he believes that marijuana legalization should be left up to the states. Rohrabacher also recently dropped a muffled bombshell on HuffPost's "Drinking and Talking" that he believes that likely Presidential candidate Scott Walker will look to lead the way on this issue in the 2016 campaign.
Many in our community have asked for Obama to sign an executive order rescheduling marijuana, but the Obama administration has made the case that Congress needs to amend the Controlled Substances Act. In my opinion, President Obama should actually put the pressure on Congress to do so.
President Obama is in a unique position. He is in his last 22 months as President. He often talks of never having to run a campaign again. It's time for him to own marijuana as an issue. I find it funny that the President is telling young people what they should care about, as if he wasn't swept in to office on the love and commitment of young people to his message of hope. Hope in the face of adversity. Hope, and more importantly, belief that big change is possible.
So come on, Mr. President. Use the power of the bully pulpit to put the pressure on Congress to de-schedule marijuana. The legacy of the Obama administration wouldn't be that it legalized weed, it would be that the Obama presidency restored faith that our government is responsive to the will of the people. It's time for the President to stop acting as if this is just an internet issue. I've recently been paying close attention to the implementation of Measure 91 here in Oregon, and it's amazing how far ahead our state legislature is on this issue compared to President Obama. Democrats and Republicans working side by side to figure out the intricacies of overseeing the emergence of a new market.
Ultimately, that's why millennials voted for a young, inexperienced Senator from the south side of Chicago with a funny name. He made us believe in the possibilities of representative democracy. There is rarely an issue that can bring Democrats and Republicans together to end gridlock. If Obama were to have his marijuana moment, I guarantee that we would see the re-emergence of young voters in 2016.
After all, by 2020 millennials will represent 40% of the eligible voting population. Show us that government can be responsive and work together to accomplish the easy issues, and we'll continue to buy into the idea that we can tackle bigger issues. This is not young people's biggest priority, however when 40% of the unemployed are millennials, it's hard not to get excited about an industry that is actually hiring.
Maybe the President should stop telling us what to care about and start listening to what we care about. We can walk and chew gum at the same time.