White House responds to marijuana and God petitions

After using its first official We the People petition response to advance a minor policy shift to reduce student loan debt, the White House is now getting to the larger share of online petitions that won't launch policy changes.

In a blanket response emailed Friday evening to signers of eight petitions calling for reforming marijuana laws, the Obama administration declined to back any policy changes.

The response from Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy, said marijuana is "not a benign drug" and is "associated with addiction, respiratory disease and cognitive impairment."

The response touted President Obama's "balanced" approach to drug enforcement, noting the administration spent about $10 billion on drug education and treatment programs in the past fiscal year compared with $9 billion on drug-related law enforcement.

Two more responses quickly followed.

The first was from Joshua DuBois, executive director of the White House's Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, who declined to take action to remove the phrases "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance or "In God We Trust" from currency. Those phrases, DuBois said, "represent the important role religion plays in American public life, while we continue to recognize and protect the rights of secular Americans."

The second response, simply titled "Why We Can't Comment," referred petitioners to a clause in the We the People terms of service stating the White House could decline to comment on certain petitions. "For important policy reasons, this includes specific law enforcement and judicial ethics matters," the response said. The petition at issue asked the White House to investigate alleged prosecutorial misconduct in the case of Sholom Rubashkin, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish businessman who was convicted of financial fraud in connection with a kosher meatpacking plant he ran in Postville, Iowa.

The White House launched We the People in September as a one-stop shop for citizens to petition the federal government. The site allowed petitioners to stump for signatures through other social media and promised to respond to petitions that got more than 5,000 signatures in a month. Officials later raised that threshold to 25,000 signatures, after nearly three dozen petitions topped the initial bar in the site's first week.

The first response posted to the site sped up enactment of 2010 legislation aimed at lowering income-based student loan repayments -- a change the White House can make by executive order and that has been called for by several advocacy groups, including Occupy Wall Street and Occupy D.C. protesters. Most other popular petitions on the site, though, either are significantly more controversial or outside the White House's direct authority.

Unlike the student loan petition response, the other petition responses aren't featured on the We the People home page.

Erik Altieri, who authored the most popular marijuana legalization petition, told Nextgov on Monday that he was disappointed with the administration's pro forma response, especially the fact that eight substantially different petitions had been lumped together in the same response.

Altieri is communications director for NORML, a marijuana legalization advocacy group.

"I really expected to at least get a more direct response instead of the same, old talking points," he said. "It seems as if the White House just wanted to put up a response to show they were listening to people, but it's the same, weak bullet point response we're used to hearing."

Georgetown University Professor Diana Owen, who studies social media in politics, has warned that too many responses that don't produce substantive policy changes could lead to a sort of petition fatigue with petitioners becoming more cynical, rather than less, about their government's responsiveness.

J.H. Snider, a Harvard University fellow, has argued We the People will be most effective at the margins -- bringing attention to issues that might not otherwise have crossed the administration's radar -- rather than at changing policy on big-ticket issues such as marijuana reform.

Snider is founder of iSolon.org, a think tank devoted to enhancing democratic participation with Internet technology.

Michael Cornfield, director of The George Washington University's political management program and a proponents of the We the People concept called Friday's marijuana response "respectful," but complained that it brought "the dialogue to a peremptory close."

"I wonder what some of the 70,000 signatories have to say about it," he continued, "and where they will say it."

Some legalization advocates voiced their responses on the We the People site itself Friday.

One petition, posted just hours after Kerlikowske's response, called for separate responses for each of the eight lumped-together marijuana petitions. Another asked for a response that wouldn't apply equally well to alcohol and a third cited the bundled response in seeking Kerlikowske's ouster.

Kerlikowseke's response did not loop in two other marijuana-related petitions that have reached the response threshold. One of those petitions calls for an end to the "destructive, wasteful and counterproductive war on drugs." The other asks for easy access to medical marijuana for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

A third, related petition asks the government to legalize the growing of industrial hemp, a crop related to marijuana.