Marijuana advocates won’t give up on White House petitions


Gary Parrish smokes marijuana Dec. 6  just after midnight at the Space Needle in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)

In our story Monday about the White House’s “We the People” online petition program, we reported on how the Obama administration is responding to the large number of off-beat petitions that have flooded the site in the past 16 months.

Perhaps the most popular issue of all has been the repeated efforts to legalize marijuana. Currently, the No. 2 most popular petition, with 66,000 signatures, asks the president to remove the plant from the federal Controlled Substance Act.

The White House has issued three responses to marijuana requests, each time coming out against liberalizing production and distribution.

But the administration’s position has not stopped marijuana supporters from pressing the White House. The issue has dominated the White House’s social media efforts even before the petition site was launched last year.

In March 2009, during President Obama’s “virtual town hall,” he was asked so many questions from marijuana supporters online that he paused during his question-and-answer session to address the issue.

The president told his audience that one question ranked high among the 3.5 million questions that came in to the White House: whether legalizing marijuana would improve the economy and spur job creation.

“I don’t know what this says about the online audience, but I don’t want people to think – this was a fairly popular question and we want to make sure it was answered,” Obama said. “The answer is no, I don’t think that’s a good strategy to grow our economy.”

Sabrina Fendrick, outreach coordinator at NORML, said that response disappointed marijuana supporters who believed Obama had showed signs of supporting changing the laws when he was running for office in 2008. 

NORML submitted a petition in September 2011 asking the White House to regulate the plant in a manner similar to alcohol, an idea that got 74,000 signatures. But the administration’s response to the marijuana petitions has been equally perfunctory, Fendrick said.

In its response, the White House said it supports ongoing research into potential medical benefits from the drug, but that it continues to oppose legalizing it for recreational use.

“Our concern about marijuana is based on what science tells us about the drug’s effects,” wrote Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, in his response to the petitions. “Marijuana use is associated with addiction, respiratory disease and cognitive impairment.”

Fendrick said she was not surprised by the answer.

"It's pretty much the same response they have on their Web site," she said. Fendrick said NORML is hopeful that the moves by voters in Washington and Colorado to legalize marijuana will lead to future gains for the movement.

As for the petition effort, Fendrick said her organization was glad to at least get a response from the White House and have the opportunity to promote the issue on the  administration’s Web site.

“Historically, it is one of the only ways to get attention for a cause, especially years ago when it was still very taboo,” she said.

David Nakamura covers the White House. He has previously covered sports, education and city government and reported from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Japan.

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Natalie Jennings · December 10, 2012