A few months back, advocates for protecting medical use of marijuana joked that Sen. John McCain had the best position on the issue: not only did he oppose federal arrests of sick and dying people, he said "that's not the kind of society we live in, and I would strongly disapprove of it" and "I would do everything in my power to stop it," AND he went the extra mile by trying to change history, claiming that no such case had ever occurred. McCain said "I've never heard of such a case, nor does anyone that I know of know of such a case, so it must be a very well-kept secret." That was Sept. 30. Granite Staters for Medical Marijuana dogged the presidential candidates as they campaigned across New Hampshire and beyond, asking each of them about their positions on medical marijuana and sharing the answers on YouTube. The tactic clearly irritated some of the candidates, but it also worked. On Nov. 18, McCain's attitude couldn't have been more changed.
"Change" is evidently the theme of this presidential campaign, although retroactively changing history or repeatedly changing positions on an issue probably isn't what voters had in mind.
Sen. Barack Obama, while solidly against federal raids on medical marijuana patients, has wavered on the issue of broader marijuana decriminalization. Steve Chapman wrote a great piece on Obama's apparent change of mind on decriminalization:
In the political realm, a strangely disjointed view of drugs prevails. Past use is forgivable. Both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton admitted to smoking marijuana, as did Al Gore and John Kerry. Obama has admitted doing the same.
At the same time, no major party presidential nominee has advocated decriminalization (much less legalization) since Jimmy Carter did so in 1976. It would be considered political suicide. So we are now in a bizarre position: A candidate who spent his college days flouting our marijuana laws can be elected president, but an abstemious, button-downed candidate who proposes to change those laws has no hope.
Had we enforced our statutes more vigorously, of course, Bush, Clinton and the others would never have been elected anything, because they would be ex-convicts. Yet Bush, Clinton and the others were happy to put people behind bars for crimes they themselves committed.
Reading the initial reports in the Washington Times, I wondered if part of the problem for politicians defining a position on decriminalization is that the term itself is not well defined. Some journalists so freely interchange "decriminalization" with "legalization" that even if Obama knows the difference, he might not trust reporters and voters to understand it.
Though we can't expect the major parties' nominees this year to make much progress on drug policy, at least this has been a good election season for educating candidates and voters alike on what is really happening and what the options are. Those wanting a refresher course (preferably before their next YouTube appearance) might want to check out Rolling Stone's "How America Lost the War on Drugs" and National Public Radio's "The Forgotten War on Drugs", two of the excellent reports on the issue this year.