I cringed last weekend when I saw news photos of a protest and demonstration in front of the White House in which the most notable image was a 51-foot inflatable “joint.”
That’s right. Here we are in 2016 on the verge of finally ending marijuana prohibition, and some activists seem caught in a time warp, using tactics more suitable for the 1960s and 70s. I question not only their tactics, but also their political focus.
This latest example of street theater came courtesy of DCMJ, the local group in DC who led the successful voter initiative to legalize marijuana in the District of Columbia in 2014. They deserve our appreciation for helping move reform forward in DC, where adults are permitted to possess up to two ounces of marijuana, to grow up to six plants for their personal use, and to give up to an ounce of marijuana to another adult for no remuneration.
This latest protest, though, was both misguided and counter-productive.
The Wrong Target
First, the stated purpose of the protest was to put pressure on President Obama, whom the group claimed had done nothing to legalize marijuana. “The Obama administration has been a big ZERO on cannabis reform,” the organizers of the event alleged in their press release announcing the White House protest.
Apparently they are unaware of the extraordinary action taken by President Obama to instruct his Department of Justice to step aside and allow the first few states that legalized marijuana to implement those laws without federal interference. That unprecedented action was an enormous gift to the legalization movement and permitted us to demonstrate that marijuana can be successfully legalized and regulated with no significant unintended consequences.
Under any prior administration, the DOJ would have filed for an injunction in federal court, seeking to use federal law to enjoin the provisions in these new state laws licensing the commercial cultivation and sale of marijuana. Most legal observers agree they would have been successful, based on the “supremacy clause” of the US Constitution.
It is the experience of these first few states that allows us to argue with authority that legalization is a legitimate option to prohibition. Ignoring the significance of this decision by President Obama, in order to justify some street theater, suggests a lack of political sophistication.
Also, President Obama has commuted the sentences of nearly 200 federal drug prisoners, including a number of people serving life sentences for non-violent marijuana offenses, and promises additional non-violent offenders will be pardoned or otherwise released from prison over the remaining months of his administration. It is difficult to imagine a public protest intended to embarrass the president would be a helpful tactic at this juncture.
The Wrong Time
Public protests have at times played a powerful role in our country’s history, most notably in building public opposition to unpopular wars, including especially the Vietnam war. However, those demonstrations involved hundreds of thousands of citizens, and demonstrated mass support for ending the war.
The latest protest at the White House involved perhaps 100 protesters, and rather than demonstrating mass opposition to President Obama and his marijuana policies, showed a handful of activists more concerned with seeing themselves on the evening news than engaging in the hard work of actually changing public policy. The utilization of the 51-foot inflatable “joint” left the impression this was more about fun in the park and less about serious political change.
Keep in mind that the City Council in the District of Columbia has been actively discussing the need to license commercial growers and retail sellers of marijuana. They would have done this earlier but for a provision attached by Congress on the District’s budget (Congress retains the right to review and possibly reject actions of our elected City Council).
Under the terms of a recent court case in DC (Council of the District of Columbia v DeWitt) , it now appears the Council may adopt a legally regulated market for marijuana, if they use only money raised from DC residents, excluding money provided to the District by Congress. The Council members understand they need to tread carefully in this area to avoid a backlash from the more conservative members of Congress, but a clear majority want to move forward.
Witnessing the juvenile demonstration at the White House could only complicate this delicate dance the DC City Council is trying to take regarding marijuana policy in the District. Instead of (symbolically) blowing smoke in their faces, these local activists could have been meeting with our supporters on the City Council to discuss how best to move forward with the least resistance from Congress.
Apparently, that would not have been nearly as much fun, nor would it have resulted in their being covered in the local news. All of us who engage in public advocacy for legalization need to be sure we are taking actions that move the legalization movement forward and not confusing media coverage with political progress. All news is not good news, and some news coverage definitely sets us back.
This latest street theater at the White House was one of those times. Though few of us were involved (none of the national reform organizations), it made us all look less than serious and politically naïve, and it did nothing to move us closer to full legalization in the District, or to encourage President Obama to push marijuana law reform further under federal law.
This column first appeared on Marijuana.com: