Obama's virtual town hall takes legalize-pot detour

Fans of legalizing marijuana flooded into a WhiteHouse.gov forum, pushing their questions to the top in a voting system that used Google Moderator.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
2 min read
White House online town hall
Fans of legalizing marijuana pushed their questions to the top of a WhiteHouse.gov voting system. (Click to enlarge.) Declan McCullagh/CNET

As any major Web site can attest, any online voting begs to be influenced by special interests. CNBC yanked a 2007 presidential poll after enthusiastic Ron Paul supporters boosted their candidate to 75 percent, and the FreeRepublic.com crowd recently flooded a Web vote about stem cell funding.

On Thursday, WhiteHouse.gov became the latest Web site to experience this kind of deluge as part of an online town hall--and this time, it was marijuana legalization advocates who voted to push their questions to the top of the charts.

By the time President Obama's town hall began, questions about legalizing marijuana ranked at the top of the "green jobs," "financial stability," "jobs," and "budget" sections (and came in a close second place in the health care section too). Sample question: "What are your plans for the failing, 'War on Drugs', that's sucking money from tax payers and putting non-violent people in prison longer than the violent criminals?"

White House aides didn't choose any of those questions to present to the president on the nearby screens, but Obama did acknowledge that the topic was a popular one.

He said online voters wanted to know "whether legalizing marijuana would improve the economy and job creation," and joked that "I don't know what this says about the online audience."

But the president--whose administration has indicated that it would effectively end raids on distributors of medical marijuana in California--said he would not support changing federal drug law that makes even possession of pot a crime. "No, I don't think this is a good strategy to grow our economy," Obama said, to applause from the audience.

The White House said that 92,927 people submitted 104,126 questions and cast a total of 3,606,824 votes.

Earlier in the week, some drug-related blogs had encouraged supporters to flood the virtual polls and vote for the marijuana-related questions through the version of Google Moderator that the White House chose for the town hall project. (Google uses the application internally, including for companywide meetings.)

A Marijuana.com discussion thread says: "Vote for the top marijuana related questions." NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said: "Please take a moment right now to log on the WhiteHouse.gov/OpenForQuestions and vote for the questions above, as well as others pertaining to the need to regulate cannabis. Let the President know that millions of American voters believe that the time has come to tax and regulate marijuana."

Obama's brief remarks on the topic demonstrated a weakness of the online town hall format: it doesn't allow followup questions, which journalists used during the president's press conference earlier this week to good effect. If that were possible, drug war foes would likely have had something else to say.

Oh, and during Thursday's online town hall, the president did address topics other than marijuana and federal drug laws, including unemployment and job creation.