Marijuana activist says Obama campaign using "Harold and Kumar" clip to hide bad policies

Update below: Kal Penn and John Cho, the stars of the Harold and Kumar movies, have been to Colorado multiple times in recent weeks to stump for the Obama campaign, and both appear with the president in a video about Penn hosting Democratic National Convention coverage this week; see it below. However, a national cannabis activist blasts the clip, arguing that it plays off pot cliches that imply Obama's marijuana policies are more progressive than the facts show.

In August, when Westword's Sam Levin spoke with Penn at a campaign event, he asked about marijuana policy. Penn replied that the subject comes up fairly often "because of some of the movies I've done," but he maintained that he didn't know much about Amendment 64, the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act, or its possible impact on the presidential vote in Colorado.

Levin included these comments in his Penn post -- something the actor didn't appear to enjoy judging by this Twitter exchange:

But while Penn criticized Levin for asking about marijuana, Tom Angell, spokesman for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, believes a promotional spot hyping the actor's role as DNC-coverage host Thursday on uses weed as a dishonest subtext.

The video begins with Obama making a phone call and telling the person on the other end of the line about the importance of the job at hand. The scene then transitions to Penn, holding the phone, and Cho sitting in a disheveled apartment watching and hooting at a television. Here's the clip:

The word "marijuana" isn't heard in the ad -- but in Angell's view, such a mention isn't necessary given the way the scene is staged.

"Featuring Harold and Kumar in this web ad, complete with pizza boxes strewn across the table, is a clear allusion to tired, old stoner stereotypes," he notes via e-mail, adding, "Someone in Chicago had a half-baked late night fantasy that this was going to go big on /r/trees on Reddit."

Continue reading for more reactions to the Obama campaign ad from LEAP's Tom Angell. LEAP has blasted the Obama administration for actions like U.S. Attorney John Walsh's letters to medical marijuana dispensaries near schools. In January, Neill Franklin, the executive director of the organization, sent a letter to Walsh decrying this action -- and in an interview with Westword, he broadened his criticism.

"I'm disappointed with the Obama administration, and I'm not the only one," he told us. "A couple of years ago, [Attorney General] Eric Holder's office sent out a letter to the thirteen states that had approved medical marijuana under state law. And that letter" -- popularly known as the Ogden memo -- "pretty much said, 'We're not going to use our resources to enforce these federal marijuana laws if dispensaries and folks in the business are operating under your state law.' And that's what you have in Colorado. But now, Walsh is sending out this letter to 23 dispensaries, saying, 'We're coming after you. We don't care if you're operating under state law. We're coming after you criminally, and we're coming after your property.' It's ridiculous. I know the president has a lot on his mind, but the letter was sent out from Eric Holder's office, and he needs to abide by his words."

Since then, the U.S. Attorney's Office has targeted dozens of additional dispensaries with letters. Walsh says the action is justified in order to protect children from exposure to illegal drugs.

Angell believes the president has used spin to avoid damage for allowing such actions to take place.

"It's sad that the Obama administration has in many cases been able to get away with the narrative that it is friendly to medical marijuana or that it wants to transform the failed war on drugs into a balanced, health-focused approach," he writes. "The fact is that his administration has taken action against far more medical marijuana providers than Bush ever did. And, despite changing the rhetoric of the war on drugs, it has maintained the same budget ratio as the Bush administration that funds arrests, punishment and eradication at a much higher rate than treatment and prevention."

Given that LEAP is a nonprofit, Angell stresses that "I can't tell anyone how to vote." However, he goes on, "I just urge voters to look at both the words and the actions of political candidates before they decide who to support.

"At a time when medical marijuana polls at 80 percent support nationally and outright legalization for adult use brings in majority support, there's tremendous political opportunity for savvy candidates to jump on the reform bandwagon and actually change these terrible laws instead of just talking about doing so. Pledging to respect state medical marijuana laws but actually being the most hostile anti-medical marijuana president in history, and then trying to appeal to the marijuana-using constituency with a Harold and Kumar ad that says the president is 'counting on' and 'trusting' marijuana users to come through for him in November seems like a poor political strategy."

He adds: "Under Obama's marijuana policies, Harold and Kumar could easily be two of the 850,000 marijuana arrests that happen in this country every year. See also: young Barry Obama during his Choom Gang days. If the rampant marijuana arrest policies that Obama's federal grant programs now fund had gotten to them at some point, it's pretty safe to assume they wouldn't be going to Charlotte to witness any balloon drops this week."

Update, 2:34 p.m. September 4: We mentioned in our original post that we reached out to the Obama campaign for comment about LEAP spokesman Tom Angell's take on the Kal Penn-John Cho web video above. Moments ago, we received a response from Ben LaBolt, the national press secretary for the president's reelection bid. However, the brief statement does not address any of Angell's specific claims.

LaBolt's note reads: "Kal's been a longtime supporter of the President. He's done more work organizing in states, getting college kids mobilized, than anybody else and we're proud to have him lead our youth efforts"

More from our Marijuana archive: "Marijuana: John Walsh responds to Boulder DA's letter about feds' MMC policy."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts