BY TONY ABRAHAM I usually try to avoid talking about politics altogether and have more or less done so for most of my 21 years on Earth. But every once in a while, a political development will pique my interest. Such was the case when the boss called me up and asked me to cover Vice President Joe Biden’s jobs bill speech at Penn on Tuesday. Turns out Biden was bringing along Gil Kerlikowske, Obama’s director of White House drug policy (formerly known as the Drug Czar, and since he still behaves like one despite the name change, we’re gonna stick with it). The boss wanted me to ask him why Obama reneged on his campaign promise to not waste precious Justice Department resources cracking down on the terminally ill using medical marijuana to get relief from pain and nausea. And point out that Obama has in fact carried out more federal raids on dispensaries in three years than Bush-Cheney did in eight. Hello! Interest piqued!
So we put in for press credentials and got approval from the White House. So far our evil plan was going swimmingly. The plan was I would go and hang out in the press section and act like I gave a shit about Obama’s weak dick DOA jobs bill, and when it came time for taking questions from the press I would drop some science on the Drug Czar [pictured, right]. In my mind it would go something like this:
The interrogation room is smoke-filled and brimming with tension. The air is thick with the musk of anxiety. A dim light hangs low from the cracked plaster ceiling, suspended by three loose strands of bare wire. I thrust my hand above my head and latch on to the lamp’s edge and slowly tilt it upward with a single finger, gradually revealing the face of the drug czar. Then I release the lamp and it swings recklessly casting crazy shadows on the wall. I speak softly at first, my gravelly, Pall Mall-cured voice breaking the silence.
“You must be the one they call Drug Czar, huh?” I whisper like Clint Eastwood in “The Good, The Bad And The Ugly.” He doesn’t respond as he nervously fiddles with a ballpoint pen lodged between his middle and ring fingers.
“So, is arresting 800,000 Americans a year for marijuana possession the Obama administration’s job creation plan?” I ask, my voice dripping with derision. He looks me square in the face, and I swear to God I can see the white flags waving to me from behind his eyes. But there’s no time for pity, finish him! So I go for the kill. “If the Obama administration is sincerely concerned about job creation, why is it cracking down on medicinal marijuana dispensaries that employ thousands?”
He looks down, but says nothing. I just sneer and shove my hands into my pockets, shaking my head in contempt. And then I woke up…
The boss told me to look and act professional and wear a suit and I must say, I was looking pretty damn sharp when I left my apartment around 1 p.m., notebook in hand, having rehearsed my one question over and over again the mirror. I ducked into my badass 2002 Hyundai Elantra, and slipped on my shades. Joe fucking Cool, I thought, I gonna wear these when I grill the Drug Czar and blow his frickin’ mind! And then I remembered that I need to wear my prescription glasses or I can’t see three feet in front of me. Even better, I thought, I would show the Drug Czar the whites of my eyes and blow his frickin’ mind! This is gonna be so awesome.
The press parking area was a half mile away from the event building, and I am lazy, so I decided to park a little closer in one the metered street spaces. The meter says I have three hours. I look at my watch: 1:37 p.m. As I hoof it down the sidewalk, I start having second thoughts. What if I get there late and they don’t let me in? What if I say something stupid? What if I have to go to the bathroom in the middle of my question? What if he has to go to the bathroom in the middle of my question?
As I get to Houston Hall, I spot three men in darks suits with sunglasses and earpieces. They don’t fool me. My spidey senses tell me they are Secret Service. Don’t panic! I slow down my walking speed to a devil-may-care gait, taking care to strike just the right balance of super-casual head-nod to mumble ratio. As I pass them by, I give ‘em the classic half-nod like I see these guys every day. They don’t even look at me. So I back up and try again. Still nothing. Fuck it. We’ll do it live.
I stroll up to the press check-in and get my credentials. Little did I know the event was BYOL (Bring Your Own Lanyard). I mean, everybody’s walking around looking so cool with their credentials dangling around their necks. Note to self: always carry a lanyard for just such an emergency. I get in line for the metal detector — fortunately, like every other day of my life, I am NOT packing heat.
Upon entering the press area, my newbie excitement sticks out like a sore thumb. The rest of the press seem so bored and jaded by it all. Just as I sit down, a woman comes over to round us up and escort us over to College Hall where it’s all gonna go down. I can feel Kerlikowske’s presence. He’s close. Very close. My heart does the double dutch. I feel like Martin Sheen waiting to see Marlon Brando. And then the press chaperone informs us that Biden and Co. will not be taking any questions from the press.
D’oh! Drug Czar one, Phawker zero.
The boss warned me these things were always ‘hurry up and wait’ and sure enough another two hours pass before anything happens. Just as the wait becomes intolerable, Mayor Nutter takes the stage, speaking about how the president’s job creation plan will create safer communities with lower crime rates. Then the Drug Czar himself takes the mic and talks about how community programs act as a kind of crime repellent, but no mention of federal storm troopers cracking open the skulls of the sick and infirm for the unspeakable crime of roasting a bowl. I have to admit: This guy’s good.
Up next is Police Commissioner Ramsey, who spends the next five minutes shamelessly kissing Biden butt. He also stressed the need for better police communications equipment, such as the D-Block – a wireless broadband network utilized by public safety officials, allowing for faster response times. Finally, the Vice President make his way to the stage, carrying with him an invisible sack full of his patented “back in the day” anecdotes. “My dad used to say, ‘Champ, if everything is equally important to you, nothing is important to you.’ Life’s about choices and priorities.” Then a whole lotta blah, blah, blah. And then it’s over. My gotcha question gotchas nobody.
Dejected, I head back to my car only to find a ticket on my windshield informing me that I have exceeded my three-hour time limit by 10 minutes. I crumble it in my hand and punch my fist in the air, shouting, “Fucking Biden! You owe me $36!,” as Air Force Two passes overhead.
I call the boss, on the verge of tears. He tells me to man the fuck up. Go to City Hall, he says, and find Chris Goldstein [pictured, below left], the spokesperson for Philly NORML, and ask him your question. Turns out he is also the spokesperson for OccupyPhilly and as such he is currently living in a tent. The stark contrast between the uptight, buttoned down drone of the presser at Penn and the frisbee-tossing, easygoing vibe of OccupyPhilly is unmistakable. I feel right at home, because I like both sticking it to The Man and playing frisbee, preferably at the same time.
I finally find Chris and ask him about Obama’s double-cross on medical marijuana. “The wording and language that has been used in the Cole Memo – they don’t really say the administration is OK with medical marijuana as the laws are overall. They say they aren’t going to interfere with medical marijuana patients. That means that they’re not going to go after the individual with the DEA and FBI. What we’ve seen is a targeting of medical marijuana businesses.” Chris adds, “So, by targeting the storefront operations, and the most profitable ones, it seems like a very politically motivated action by the state against the most visible and profitable business owners.”
I ask him how many jobs would be lost if the medical marijuana dispensation infrastructure was dismantled. “When they were considering Prop 19, Mendocino County, California figured that they had a one billion dollar marijuana economy – not just medical marijuana but the overall marijuana economy. Marijuana is already a part of the fabric of things. What we see now is the attempt to force it back underground. What impact could it have? Do those jobs go away? They go underground – they don’t disappear,” he said. “The sad part is, the businesses that are trying their hardest to pay their taxes are the ones that are being targeted. What an absurd world, that profitable businesses that contribute jobs and a greater sense of community are the ones that are targeted for closure by the federal government.”
I ask him why he thought the Justice Department was bringing the hammer down. “You have to look at what’s happening in New Jersey,” he says. “I believe that the federal government is trending towards controlling medical marijuana and the future of it’s pharmaceutical derivatives. Hypothetically – what if we kept marijuana illegal for recreational use, but somehow created a New Jersey-like system where we have this highly regulated, low-potency marijuana sold for just the same amount as street price for high quality marijuana. Well, that’s a win-win for everybody. You get to ultra-regulate this market, people pay their taxes, but it’s not legalized for recreational use. We’re out here with Occupy Philly railing against corporate greed – corporate greed is taking over medical marijuana right across the river in New Jersey.”
“The crime isn’t around the marijuana, the crime is around the money,” he continued. “What people pay right now is not the price of production. The $400-500 an ounce people pay is the price of prohibition. The fact they would legitimize those prohibition prices by allowing heavily regulated medical marijuana facilities in New Jersey to charge the same price as street value is absurd. The actual price of production is about $150 an ounce for the highest quality marijuana. Violence and crime? Not around the plant, it’s around the money. If you legalize it, it goes down in price, and the only people who want to see that happen is the people who have a prescription for it. And sad to say, they are way way down in the pecking order.”
And that, my friends, is the moral of the story. If ‘hope’ and ‘change’ sounds too good to be true, it probably is. As a wise man once said: Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters.