Watching the State of the Union on Tuesday night, I wanted to hear five words and five words only: end the war on drugs.


James Brennan

Before President Barack Obama was even in college, he spent his days and nights in Hawaii hanging out with the now-infamous “Choom Gang.” Choom is an old euphemism for smoking weed, an activity Obama and his pals participated in quite frequently. Not surprisingly, last week the president came to the same conclusion a lot of other former and current marijuana users have — the substance is no more dangerous than alcohol.

Obama famously joked in 2006, “I inhaled frequently. That was the point.” While Obama can look back at his pot-smoking (and coke-snorting) days with humor, millions of young men like him are imprisoned every day for drugs and released years later only to be treated like second-class citizens. Though our chief executive believes marijuana is less dangerous than a legal substance, police and prosecutors continue to send people to jail for pot and other nonviolent offenses every day — offenses Obama committed plenty of times as a young man.

Had Obama been caught smoking pot or doing blow when he was my age, it’s likely he would have been convicted of a felony and barred for years from voting. He would also have been automatically disqualified from jobs with arbitrary criminal background screenings that toss any applications from convicted felons, regardless of the crime.

In 2004, Obama put it quite eloquently: “The war on drugs has been an utter failure.”

Today the United States has over 2 million incarcerated citizens with $70 billion in costs for corrections and incarceration. Huge portions of both of these statistics are thanks to the war on drugs. Half of federal prisoners are serving time for nonviolent drug offenses, with U.S. taxpayers being billed some $51 billion a year for prisons and enforcement. The Drug Policy Alliance estimates that the totality of the war on drugs has cost America over $1 trillion in taxes. That’s not including the countless billions that we have lost from those who have been thrown in jail and labeled felons for life, unable to get housing or jobs.

We all know the State of the Union address is a joke. It means very little in terms of both politics and substantive policy, but for some reason 40 to 50 million people still watch it every year. If there were ever a time for the president to call for an end to America’s longest war, it was Tuesday night.

Obama has articulated the same vision at all of his other State of the Union addresses. It has gotten us almost nowhere, especially with the current Republican Party holding the House of Representatives. Article after article came out this week discussing the insignificance of the State of the Union, especially recently. Had Obama called for an end to the war on drugs, the country would have been set ablaze (no pun intended).

The majority of Americans favor legalizing marijuana, while a huge majority of people in both Texas and California are tired of sending people to prison over drugs.

This is a winning issue.

I know the president is afraid of losing popularity and alienating people on both sides of the aisle, but he needs to realize he’s already done that. From Obamacare, to drone strikes, to the NSA scandal and the economy, Obama has made enemies with both progressives and right-wingers. He has accomplished very little of note in the last few years, and sadly, it seems the man elected to bring hope and change has only reinforced our country’s ideology that politicians bring neither.

If I were Obama, I’d take a cue from a more popular leader: Pope Francis. Pope Francis has said and done things no other Pope has, and his simple actions and words have inspired new debates and discussions that may change the world’s political, social and economic trajectory. It was unthinkable a few years ago to imagine a Pope saying he isn’t in a position to judge gay men and women or to call on the church to stop talking about abortion and contraception, let alone start talking about income inequality and the poor. This unthinkable situation led to Pope Francis becoming, potentially, the most popular pope the world has yet to see.

Calling for an end to the war on drugs could be the president’s Pope Francis moment, and it could very well be his legacy if he chooses. Obama probably won’t see the drug war end during his time in office, but the conversation has to begin somewhere; someone needs to start talking.

How about the guy with the microphone?

James Brennan can be reached at jmbthree@umich.edu.

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