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.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.