The digital president, Barack Obama held a sort of national press conference following his State of the Union Address this week. As he has done after every SOTU address since he took office, Obama told the nation to query him via YouTube and he would answer questions.
The video submissions Obama answered on Thursday afternoon -- inquiries about Egypt, the economy, and the Super Bowl ("May the best team win," the chief executive replied) -- were the ones that received the most votes in an online poll.
For the third straight year, Obama was asked about the country's War on Drugs. The question about America's failed drug policy -- submitted by MacKenzie Allen, a retired Los Angeles sheriff's deputy and member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition -- was the highest-rated question.
But this time, Obama took the question. Nevermind that the president dodged some key points -- the fact that he answered the question at all is a huge step forward, Allen told SF Weekly on Thursday.
"The so-called War on Drugs has been waged for 40 years at a cost of trillions of dollars and thousands of lives, with nothing to show for it but increased supply, cheaper drugs, and a dramatic increase in violence in the underworld drug market," Allen said in his 30-second question. "Do you think there will or should come a time for us to discuss the legalization, regulation and control of all drugs, thereby doing away with the violent criminal market as well as a major funding source for international terrorism?"
Obama answered the question seriously. "This is an entirely legitimate topic for debate," the president said, before adding, "I am not in favor of legalization."
It buoyed Allen's soul when he heard the president say, "We have to think more of drugs as a public health problem, like smoking, drunk driving, wearing seat belts... with drugs, I think we're so focused on arrests and incarceration that we don't spend enough time thinking about how we shrink demand."
"This is something we in the White House are looking at very carefully," added Obama, before stating that "drug cartels" around the US-Mexico border are still a main target of U.S. law enforcement.
Obama offered no revelations of substantive policy changes or any kind of signal that the War on Drugs was coming to an end anytime soon.
Still, "I was pleasantly surprised [that Obama took the question]," Allen told SF Weekly. "But I think the president gave short shrift to the enforcement issue. We are never going to legislate away people wanting to intoxicate themselves, regardless of substance. It's not realistic on his or any other politician's part to think that we can throw more money and manpower away and that drug dealers and cartels are going to go away."
"A half-trillion dollars a year?" said Allen, referring to his estimate of what the black market for drugs is worth. "You can buy yourself a sovereign country for that kind of money."
The fact that his question is being taken seriously on a national stage is itself a victory, Allen said. But now that awareness is heightened, real policy needs to be established next before folks like David Goldman, of San Francisco's chapter of Americans for Safe Access, a medical cannabis patients' advocacy group, is satisfied.
"It was a baby-step forward, and thank you for small favors," said Goldman sardonically. "But until we get marijuana rescheduled, we're nowheresville."
Marijuana is classified by the U.S. Department of Justice as a "schedule 1" controlled substance, meaning it has a high potential for abuse and no medical value. Medical cannabis, of course, has been the law of the land in California since 1996. Marinol, a synthetic THC substitute, has been a Schedule II controlled substance (like Oxycontin) since 1999.
"President Obama discusses investing in education so we can "win the
future" yet our current federal policy would sooner put our youth
in prison than in higher education, regardless of the fact that
education and employment are the best deterrents from drug abuse and
the criminal system," said Dale Sky Jones, a spokeswoman for the Yes on 19 campaign who helped organize a Web-based drive to get Obama to answer the question.
"There is no apparent plan for action from the top down, therefore
the individual states have a constitutional right under the 10th
amendment, and a fiscal obligation under the current fiscal crisis,
to take up the debate in the voting booth and state legislatures," Jones added.
So it's status quo for now. But at least Obama gave the issue a nod in between Super Bowl predictions -- that's more than legalization advocates received from both Bushes and Clinton combined.
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