Forget jobs and spending cuts. Ask around online, and it seems Americans just want the right to get high.
Marijuana legalization has been the top issue on the White House’s new “We the People” petition site since it launched last month as a way for citizens to lobby for issues that matter most to them.
The marijuana petition already has more than 55,000 signatures – 20,000 more than any other issue on the site and much more than the 25,000-signature threshold administrators set to warrant an official response. The White House has not yet responded to the marijuana petition.
And so it has been each time the Obama administration engaged voters online: Marijuana legalization was among the most popular questions raised on Twitter, YouTube and Change.gov, the president’s transition site.
“I don’t know what this says about the online audience,” Obama joked when answering questions from Change.gov two years ago. Then he dismissed the idea that establishing a legal marijuana trade could boost the economy.
What it seems to say is that while the marijuana lobby has a motivated base of online supporters, pot advocates have failed to translate that grass-roots support into political might.
“The political mind is pretty simple: What can you do for me, what can you do to harm me. … We’re not effectively casting that in either direction,” said Allen St. Pierre, executive director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, which started the White House petition.
St. Pierre said online petitions help spread the word and generate supporters who can call and write Congress, but they have not translated into the real-world pressure – and money – needed for his side to win.
His group’s political action committee gave about $10,000 in the previous election. A similar group, the Marijuana Policy Project, spent nearly $80,000 in the 2010 election cycle and also devoted $60,000 to lobbying last year, small amounts compared with the millions of dollars spent by other interest groups.
“We are not nearly as organized to put together the type of donations and PACs that arrest and immediately catch the attention of the elite body politic,” St. Pierre said.
The advocates do have a bipartisan bill – backed by Reps. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Barney Frank (D-Mass.) – to limit the federal government’s role in marijuana enforcement. Though it’s unlikely to pass, Marijuana Policy Project spokesman Morgan Fox called the measure a “placeholder” to “keep the conversation alive.”
“Considering the current political climate on the federal level, I don’t think we’re ever going to see a tax-and-regulate system for marijuana consumption. I think we’ll see the feds stepping back and allowing the states to regulate it,” he said.
Fox praised online petitions for helping generate media interest and removing the stigma around marijuana.
“Politicians need courage. … Courage comes in the form of lots of public support,” he said.
Fox agreed with St. Pierre that the online support is not enough. He said many pot smokers and their supporters feel comfortable backing the issue on the Internet, where there is relative anonymity, but fear harassment if they do so in person.
The creation of an industry trade group last year has helped legitimize the cause. The National Cannabis Industry Association represents the $1.7 billion legal medical marijuana industry, including growers and suppliers.
The group has focused more on business needs, such as access to banking and tax credits, while remaining neutral on legalization.
“As an industry, basically they are just trying to have the federal government respect what they are doing legally now under state law,” said Steve Fox (no relation to Morgan Fox), a lobbyist for the trade group and the Marijuana Policy Project.
Still, the grass-roots and industry interests often align. In California, he said, efforts by federal prosecutors to control medical marijuana use are “driving everyone together.”
“Politicians, starting with President Obama, will need to understand that they’re actually damaging themselves politically by taking these actions,” he said, noting that online petitions are one way for voters to express their disappointment.
The marijuana advocates said polls show that most Americans are on their side, especially younger voters.
“Our opposition is dying and those who are younger just become increasingly supportive because they know it’s not a big deal,” Steve Fox said.
Yet there is also growing opposition from groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The group hasn’t weighed in on legalization but has raised concerns about its impact on drugged driving.
“A lot of people sign petitions online who just want to smoke,” said J.T. Griffin, senior vice president for public policy at MADD. “There is a bigger policy debate that needs to be addressed before lawmakers can make a good decision.”
For the Drug Free America Foundation, legalization is out of the question.
“It is an impairing drug. People have been harmed by it. To say it is a safe drug is just another one of their big fat lies,” Calvina Fay, the group’s executive director, said of the pro-marijuana lobby.