Here's some change you can believe in: The Obama administration is more interested in breaking bread with UFO spotters than with people who understand that it's ridiculous to treat pot as an illegal substance.
It's bad enough that the administration is blithely continuing its quest to eradicate medical-marijuana dispensaries even in states that have declared them legal. It almost beggars belief that this backward, puritanical position — on mere weed — is held by an administration headed by the man we all thought was so modern and cool and progressive.
But a look at the administration's We the People site just now really socks it home. The format is petitions that ordinary people send in and vote on. Of the top 10 most signed, no fewer than half concern the legalization of marijuana. Not heroin and cocaine, mind you, but just pot. Together, the petitions have attracted more than 150,000 signatures.
Now, among the other petitions are a few nut-job affairs. One asks that the administration "Immediately disclose the government's knowledge of and communications with extraterrestrial beings," while another one requests that it "Formally acknowledge an extraterrestrial presence engaging the human race." Not surprisingly — although somewhat depressingly, to be sure — together these two got only 18,000 signers.
Interestingly, the administration's response on the site to that topic, by Phil Larson of the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, is rather gorgeously polite. "Many scientists and mathematicians have looked with a statistical mindset at the question of whether life likely exists beyond Earth and have come to the conclusion that the odds are pretty high that somewhere among the trillions and trillions of stars in the universe there is a planet other than ours that is home to life.
"There are a number of projects working toward the goal of understanding if life can or does exist off Earth," Larson coos at these people, many of whom have tales of abduction. In an alternative universe, so to speak, one might suppose the Obama folks would not dignify this silliness with a response at all. However, there is barely dignity of any kind in the response to the real-world concerns of the people who signed the marijuana-law petitions.
Gil Kerlikowske is director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy — i.e., drug czar. Last we heard from him in the summer, he was turning away representatives of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition who showed up at his building after he had repeatedly refused even to meet with them. Now he has penned the administration's response to these petitioners about marijuana.
The response is one part Anti-Saloon League and one part 1984. "Marijuana use is associated with addiction, respiratory disease, and cognitive impairment," he intones. OK, there may be such "associations." But sugary beverages are "associated" with obesity, diabetes and heart disease. How far along is the administration in classifying Sprite as contraband?
And of course, alcohol is "associated" with addiction, cognitive impairment and all manner of ills, and yet one can purchase it, with it assumed that other societal mechanisms will address its possible abuse. Many of us watch HBO's Boardwalk Empire, in which establishments are penalized for serving cocktails, and shake our heads. I'd bet quite a bit that Kerlikowske would do the same. Many of us just caught Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's fine Prohibition series on PBS and felt the same way.
Indeed, the most popular of the marijuana petitions on the We the People site proposes, quite simply, that we "Legalize and Regulate Marijuana in a Manner Similar to Alcohol." But Kerlikowske's response to this is lies: "The President's National Drug Control strategy is balanced and comprehensive, emphasizing prevention and treatment while at the same time supporting innovative law enforcement efforts that protect public safety and disrupt the supply of drugs entering our communities."
It is not balanced; nor does it "emphasize" prevention and treatment. Under Obama, punishment for drug possession and use has been funded more highly, while funds for treatment under the Department of Education have been slashed by a third (pdf).
Kerlikowske: "Preventing drug use is the most cost-effective way to reduce drug use and its consequences in America. And, as we've seen in our work through community coalitions across the country, this approach works in making communities healthier and safer."
The rest of us: This argument is specious overall but quite hopeless as regards marijuana. Who among us could name a single American community in which the fabric of life has been transformed by people having a harder time getting their hands on a joint?
Now, I should be clear — even in its response to the UFO true believers, the administration does tell truth: "The U.S. government has no evidence that any life exists outside our planet, or that an extraterrestrial presence has contacted or engaged any member of the human race. In addition, there is no credible information to suggest that any evidence is being hidden from the public's eye."
But in this, again the administration treats these eccentrics with more respect than it does the people who want to see marijuana legalized. Those serious people get the written equivalent of a squirt in the eye from a spray bottle, as if they were cats trying to jump on the counter to nab some tuna salad.
I caught the ancient movie comedy International House last weekend. One spot has Cab Calloway and his band doing "Reefer Man," with the implication that the bassist has just enjoyed some. They used to pull that sequence when showing the film on television — a Reefer Madness take on pot that we now laugh at as overblown and quaint.
The Obama folks have no problem imposing that same kind of unthinking primitivism on the nation at large, and not just in what we get to see on TV. And yet meanwhile, one senses that they wouldn't mind a good sit-down with Marvin the Martian.
It's one more example of how the hopey-changey thing really doesn't seem to be working out for us.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor to The Root.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.