AD Main Menu

Obama a former stoner? Alaskans' approval of pot use? Are times changing?

Andrew Halcro
Public domain image

Recent revelations that as a young adult President Barack Obama consumed marijuana like Cheech & Chong, provides a compelling narrative for advocates seeking to legalize cannabis: You to can smoke pot, go to Columbia and Harvard and then become the President of the United States.

The stoner's American Dream is alive and well.

In a recently released biography of the President's youth, David Mariniss details Obama's insatiable appetite for marijuana. Honestly, it's much to do about nothing. If you had the opportunity of growing up in Alaska in the 1970s, you were automatically issued a Van Halen album and a joint when you turned eighteen. 

But all of this talk about personal use or personal opinion begs the question, what do Americans think about lighting up?

Recent public opinion polls both scientific and non-scientific show Americans support the legalization of marijuana. In a recent Rasmussen poll 56 percent of Americans believed pot should be legalized, regulated and taxed. In a Yahoo! non-scientific poll of 250,000 votes, 66 percent said the drug should be legalized.

Surveys also show that while the number of teens trying pot has remained stable over the last few decades, the amount of adults smoking pot has increased.

In Alaska, the state's strong constitutional right to privacy clause allows for residents to have pot in their possession.

In 1975 the Alaska Supreme Court ruled in Ravin V. Alaska: 

...(W)e conclude that no adequate justification for the state's intrusion into the citizen's right to privacy by its prohibition of possession of marijuana by an adult for personal consumption in the home has been shown. The privacy of the individual's home cannot be breached absent a persuasive showing of a close and substantial relationship of the intrusion to a legitimate governmental interest. Here, mere scientific doubts will not suffice. The state must demonstrate a need based on proof that the public health or welfare will in fact suffer if the controls are not applied.

Fifteen years later, a citizens initiative sought to criminalize both marijuana possession and use, but failed at the ballot box. "That was the Hickel election year," said Dr. Jerry McBeath who teaches Political Science at University of Alaska Fairbanks. He was referring to the three way election where Wally Hickel won a second term as governor after he joined the race late as an Independent. 

"Shortly after the election, there were bumper stickers that sprouted up saying 'Pot got more votes than Hickel,'" McBeath added.

And while the Alaska Supreme Court had ruled that up to four ounces for personal use was legal, the Alaska State Legislature in 2006 reduced the legal amount to one ounce. 

However when it comes to pot, Alaskans are very compassionate. In 1998 Alaskans voted overwhelmingly to legalize medicial marijuana. Even the Alaska Nurses Association supported then-Proposition Eight. In legalizing medicinal use of marijuana, Alaska has become one of seventeen states that currently allow pot as a viable medical treatment for such diseases as glaucoma and multiple sclerosis. 

And although many still cling to the outdated notion that prohibition works and the war on drugs is essential, the reality is the war on drugs has failed. Since President Richard Nixon began the war on drugs in 1974 and Nancy Reagan was telling Americans to just say no, states have been incarcerating too many on possession of cannabis charges.

According to a report in the New England Journal of Medicine titled The War on Drugs: A Peace Proposal, authors point out that over 225,000 people are incarcerated today for possession of pot and over 20 million have been detained since 1965. Currently, possession of cannabis is the fourth highest cause for arrest in the United States.

There are arguments for and against legalizing cannabis, the first one is public safety.

Over the last few decades, many have died tragically in marijuana deals gone bad. In Anchorage alone there has been two notable murders in the last few years concerning the purchasing of the substance. A young women was killed in a shootout from a pickup truck over a marijuana deal gone sour and another young man was stabbed in the stairwell of the J.C. Penney parking garage.

In the Lower 48 violence is growing more brazen and brutal. Mexican drug gangs have killed almost 50,000 people since 2006 when Mexico began its war on drugs. The failure of the Mexican and American authorities along the border to stem the flow of marijuana into the U.S. has also driven gangland violence deep in to the heartlands of America.

If we learned anything from prohibition, it taught us that prohibition doesn't work. It also taught us that people were willing to literally kill for a drink. 

Like outlawing liquor, stopping Americans from procuring pot is like trying to stop water seeping through a paper bag.

By legalizing, regulating and taxing cannabis, violence could significantly decrease because the drug would be legally available. Drug gangs would no longer have a reason to kill for territory because the drug would be available through legal and regulated channels.

The second argument is public and fiscal policy.

With the growing costs of incarcerating those caught in possession of marijuana, it makes little sense to keep spending money jailing those who commit a victimless crime. Even the California Medical Association has called for legalizing the drug as there is no definitive research that shows pot is harmful.

Legalization of marijuana could also provide revenue for cash-strapped states. A regulatory matrix for marijuana that is similar to the current alcohol policy could be better than the failure of the existing prohibition. As some advocates have suggested, a regulatory policy for marijuana could mirror the existing constraints that presently govern commercial alcohol production, distribution, and use – while imposing even stricter limits regarding the availability.

Harvard economist Jeff Miron puts the market value of marijuana sales in the United States anywhere from $10 to $40 billion a year. Miron estimates that this could generate $20 billion per year in taxes, but cautions supporters about getting too optimistic.

"Legalization is a long ways off," Miron said in an interview. "Many advocates look at the polls and think they're just about to win, but it's simply not true," he added. While many states have de-criminalized marijuana, and less resources are being mobilized then in the past, "Until a mainstream political party begins to support the cause, it will always be a non-starter," Miron stated.

There are just as many arguments about keeping marijuana illegal, including the liability companies or organizations might face if one of their employees is stoned on the job, thus increasing the risk. However, many companies and organizations who rely on company couriers or those that operate machinery already drug test employees.

Another argument is that marijuana is a gateway drug, and will cause widespread use by teens and encourage criminal behavior. But again, there is no scientific proof. A 2010 study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior found there is no gateway theory and that drug use is more commonly tied to a person's life. 

There are others who have a vested interest in opposing the legalization including the pharmaceutical industry who fear a cheaper bag of pot might impact sales of their medicinal products. In fact the initial criminalization of marijuana in 1937 has been tied to such business luminaries as Randolph Hearst and Andrew Mellon, who weren't concerned about the public health, just their personal corporate interest.

The debate over the legalization will continue to grow, the U.S. government will continue to spend billions on fighting a losing battle, and states will continue to spend needless amounts of money incarcerating citizens who have done nothing worse than having a Glenlivet on the rocks or a Valium.

The criminalization of marijuana has arguably failed. The gang killings continue as do the arrests. It makes questionable fiscal sense to continue spending taxpayer dollars chasing something that can be grown on a person's windowsill.

Attitudes are changing, trends are changing and times are changing, just not the law.

Public policy makers should look at this debate and view the pros and cons minus the age-old scare tactics. At least with this issue, government intervention, regulation and taxation could actually be a good thing.

Andrew Halcro is the publisher of AndrewHalcro.com, a blog devoted to Alaska issues and politics, where this commentary first appeared. He is president of Halcro Strategies and Avis/Alaska Rent-A-Car, his family business. Halcro served in the Alaska House of Representatives from 1999 to 2003, and he ran for governor in 2006 as an Independent.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.