Pubdate: Wed, 27 Mar 2013
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 2013 Chicago Tribune Company
Author: Clarence Page
Page: 23


As the nation's capital prepares to open its first legal medicinal 
marijuana dispensary and Sen. Rand Paul's call for legalization basks 
in bipartisan praise, it's time for President Barack Obama to clear 
the air around his own passive-aggressive position.

Until now, the president has been remarkably adept at taking 
positions that seemed to be ahead of their time - and getting ahead of them.

For example, when he declared his full support for the right of 
same-sex couples to marry nationwide, there were fears even among his 
supporters that he would lose important votes before his reelection 
campaign, particularly among black churchgoers. Those fears proved to 
be exaggerated.

But four years after his Justice Department announced the feds will 
no longer crack down on medicinal marijuana sellers who follow state 
laws, the president's pot position continues to be dangerously vague 
and confusing.

In California, where voters approved medicinal marijuana use in 1996, 
the law was so vaguely worded that about 1,000 dispensaries 
mushroomed in Los Angeles County alone. Yet busts continued, partly 
over disputes as to whether the law allowed only nonprofit businesses.

At the other extreme, November ballots in Colorado and Washington 
state legalized marijuana for recreational use, and the District of 
Columbia's first dispensary, Capital City Care, has its website up 
and plans to open in April.

On another front, Sen. Paul, a famously libertarian Kentucky 
Republican, has introduced a bill with Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy 
of Vermont to give judges greater flexibility in sentencing for drug crimes.

In a recent TV interview with Fox News' Chris Wallace that even Think 
Progress praised as "uncharacteristically sensible," the 
left-progressive website's equivalent of a four-star review for the 
Kentucky conservative, Paul got to the heart of the current tragedy: 
ruined lives.

"Our prisons are full of nonviolent criminals," Paul said. "I don't 
want to encourage people to do it. I think even marijuana is a bad 
thing to do. ... But I also don't want to put people in jail who make 
a mistake."

He spoke forcefully of the many young nonviolent offenders like 
Obama, who has written about his teen drug indiscretions, and 
possibly former President George W. Bush, who has politely refused to 
confirm or deny drug use during the years before he found sobriety.

"Look, the last two presidents could conceivably have been put in 
jail for their drug use and I really think, you know, look what would 
have happened," Paul said. "They got lucky, but a lot of poor kids. 
particularly in the inner city, they don't get lucky, they don't have 
good attorneys, and they go to jail for these things, and I think 
it's a big mistake."

On that note, Paul strikes a nerve with me and numerous other 
African-Americans and civil rights advocates. As Michelle Alexander, 
an Ohio State University associate law professor, writes in her 
best-seller, "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of 
Colorblindness," statistics show a majority of African-American men 
in urban areas to be in jail, on probation, otherwise "under 
correctional control" or "saddled with criminal records for the rest 
of their lives."

The result is a new form of second-class citizenship that traps them 
in "a parallel social universe, denied basic civil and human rights." 
That includes the right to vote, to serve on juries and to be free of 
legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to education and 
other public benefits.

And the financial cost on top of the social cost of the failed "war 
on drugs" has caused such big conservative names as anti-tax lobbyist 
Grover Norquist, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former 
Attorney General Edwin Meese to join others in Right On Crime, an 
organization aimed at promoting less costly and more productive 
alternatives to incarceration, like drug treatment and community 
service for nonviolent offenders.

With the trends moving in such a productive direction, I'm hardly 
alone in wondering what Obama is waiting for. As with the issue of 
same-sex marriage, his support could get ahead of the trend and help 
move it along. He can even claim it was his idea all along.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom