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Philly420: Obama continues to evade marijuana issue

Ken Wolks, RN, addressed the crowd at Saturday's demonstration onIndependence Mall
Ken Wolks, RN, addressed the crowd at Saturday's demonstration onIndependence MallRead more

Goldstein smoked his first joint in 1994 and has been working to legalize marijuana ever since. He serves on the Board of Directors at PhillyNORML has been covering cannabis news for over a decade.

President Obama last week said the federal government has "bigger fish to fry" than individual recreational marijuana consumers in Washington and Colorado. But his response, offered to Barbara Walters, was an artful dodge and underhanded spin. Don't believe the hype: Obama isn't on the 420 bandwagon just yet.

Obama's Department of Justice (DOJ) issued two detailed memoranda since 2009 that boiled down to the exact same thing regarding medical marijuana patients. News organizations and even the medical marijuana business community thought this meant that the DEA's gunpoint raids of medical cannabis dispensaries would stop.

They misinterpreted the message. The DOJ, U.S. Attorneys and the DEA don't consider individual patients a priority target for their law enforcement budgets. Instead, the feds focus on raiding dispensaries where those patients buy their state-legal marijuana.

More than 750,000 Americans are busted each year with a small amount of pot but only handfuls are arrested by a federal law enforcement agent.

The president's "bigger fish" statement is a far cry from any change in policy or position. In fact nothing has changed at all, so the marijuana policy conflict for the federal government continues to grow faster than outdoor cannabis in September.

Two states have fully legalized marijuana; seventeen states have decriminalized possession; eighteen states have medical marijuana laws. Obama has pledged a "conversation" but has skillfully cut off any real debate.

This is nothing new. During his administration marijuana supporters have consistently pressed Obama during town halls and other forums. Cannabis legalization questions from students, former law enforcement and activists were always ranked on top, only to be laughed off or simply ignored.

But in an interesting move Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) announced last week he wanted hearings on Capitol Hill to address the legalization votes in Washington and Colorado.

Locally, there was one brief test last weekend of Obama's "bigger fish" statement. More than 150 supporters gathered on Independence Mall near the Liberty Bell on December 15 for a demonstration called "Smoke Down Prohibition." Activists, including a registered nurse, a cancer patient and myself addressed the crowd. At 4:20 p.m., most of those in attendance lit up marijuana joints.

National Park Service police and a contingent of Philadelphia City Police watched from across the street. The event took place on federal property in an area preserved for 1st Amendment protests. There were no arrests or citations.

Why demonstrate? Well, as Thomas Jefferson said "If a law is unjust, a man is not only right to disobey it; he is obligated to do so."

We held the public action as a statement of civil disobedience and as stakeholders in cannabis reform. There is a gallery of photos and video of the event here.

Obama could begin a conversation about ending federal cannabis prohibition and commence the debate right at Independence Mall. Is there a better place to cut through the silence and spin?

Contact Chris Goldstein at