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A Page From The Jimmy Carter Playbook

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March 30, 2009

When Barack Obama began his Presidential campaign, I was initially skeptical.  Here was another guy from “out of the blue” pursuing a bid for the White House.  I was reminded of Jimmy Carter:  a man who had served a term as Governor of Georgia, who began his Presidential campaign with little name recognition.  Carter’s Presidency was marked by rampant inflation and an ill-advised decision to allow Iran’s ailing, deposed Shah into the United States (from exile in Mexico) to die here.  That move resulted in the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Iran, and the holding of 52 American diplomats as hostages until the end of Carter’s term in office.  Teddy Kennedy unsuccessfully challenged Carter for the Democratic nomination in 1980, knowing that Carter had little chance of re-election.   After serving only one term as President, Carter was voted out of office.

At the outset, Carter’s Presidential campaign got a lot of traction from the widespread belief among young voters that Carter would do something to change our nation’s marijuana laws.  Not only did Carter lack the political courage to take such a stand once he became President, he did the opposite.  Carter authorized the use of an herbicide called Paraquat, to be sprayed on marijuana fields in Colombia and Mexico.  Upon realizing that their crops were sprayed with this substance, the sleazy pot farmers quickly harvested the contaminated weed and sent it to market in the United States.  As a result, many Americans developed permanent respiratory problems.

Now that the Obama Administration has taken a “States’ rights” position on medical marijuana laws (by refusing to continue the Bush administration’s tactic of prosecuting medical marijuana facilities) proponents for repeal of pot prohibition, have stepped up their campaign.  Given the current economic crisis, now might be the time for the government to consider legalizing marijuana and taxing it, as is done with the more dangerous ethyl alcohol.

On Thursday, March 26, President Obama held a “town hall” meeting in the East Room of the White House.  Although there were only 100 audience members in the East Room, viewers were invited to submit questions over the Internet.  Nearly 100,000 questions were submitted on-line in response to this invitation.  As John Ward Anderson reported for Politico:

In this moment of national economic crisis, the top four questions under the heading of “Financial security” concerned marijuana; on the budget, people voted up questions about marijuana to positions 1-4; marijuana was in the first and third positions under “jobs”; people boosted a plug for legalizing marijuana to No. 2 under “health care reform.”  And questions about decriminalizing pot occupied spots 1 and 2 under “green jobs and energy.”

After taking questions lower on the list, Obama addressed the pot issue head-on, noting the huge number of questions about marijuana legalization and remarking with a chuckle, “I don’t know what that says about the online audience.”

“The answer is no, I don’t think that is a good strategy to grow our economy,” he said, as the audience in the room applauded and joined him in a laugh.

Although the enthusiastic sycophants in the audience shared a chuckle with the President, many commentators took a dim view of Obama’s discourteous response.  Conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan was particularly incensed by the President’s affront to “the online audience”:

The chuckle suggests a man of his generation.  The dismissiveness toward the question of ending Prohibition as both a good in itself and a form of tax revenue is, however, depressing.  His answer was a non-answer.  I’m tired of having the Prohibition issue treated as if it’s trivial or a joke.  It is neither.  It is about freedom and it’s deadly serious.  As for your online audience, Mr president, have you forgotten who got you elected?

On his blog at Salon.com, Pete Guither took stock of reactions to the President’s superciliousness from across the blogosphere.  Many of the rejoinders he quoted came from people at The Huffington Post.  I will include some of them here.

Jim Gilliam said:

Pot saved my life. It’s a miracle drug, even the crappy non-organic kind made in a lab.

The President will be asked this question again, and maybe next time he won’t laugh at us.

Sam Stein’s retort included the reaction of a law enforcement professional:

Jack Cole, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), said in response:

“Despite the president’s flippant comments today, the grievous harms of marijuana prohibition are no laughing matter. Certainly, the 800,000 people arrested last year on marijuana charges find nothing funny about it, nor do the millions of Americans struggling in this sluggish economy.  It would be an enormous economic stimulus if we stopped wasting so much money arresting and locking people up for nonviolent drug offenses and instead brought in new tax revenue from legal sales, just as we did when ended alcohol prohibition 75 years ago during the Great Depression.”

Dan Sweeney had this to say:

According to Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard fully 75 percent of Mexican drug cartels’ cash comes from the sale of marijuana.  Legalizing marijuana would, of course, take away that massive source of income for the cartels, just as ending prohibition cut bootlegging as a source of revenue for La Cosa Nostra.

Combining all of the above effects, the legalization of marijuana means billions of dollars saved or made, the creation of jobs and the curbing of violence along the Mexican border, which in turn means saving thousands of lives.

Barack Obama can certainly be against legalization, but he owes it to nonviolent drug offenders caught in the horror show that is the U.S. prison system, the families of innocent victims of the Mexican drug wars and economically bloodied U.S. taxpayers to explain why. Ganja may cause the giggles, but legalization shouldn’t be a laughing matter.  And it certainly shouldn’t be treated as cavalierly as it has by the current administration, especially when it has been proven to be a popular issue every time Obama has tried to go straight to the people.

President Obama’s expressed position on the marijuana issue demonstrates the same political cowardice America witnessed in Jimmy Carter.  If you want to read an uplifting story about political courage, Constitutional law and civil rights attorney, Glenn Greenwald, wrote an excellent piece concerning Virginia Senator Jim Webb’s political courage for Salon.com.  Not surprisingly, the example Mr. Greenwald chose to contrast with Jim Webb’s political bravery was President Obama’s “adolescent, condescending snickering when asked about marijuana legalization”.  The marijuana controversy presents our new President with the opportunity to demonstrate the same degree of political courage exhibited by Jim Webb.  He ought to give it a try.