Marijuana questions dominate White House online chat -- again

Gavel and marijuana. Concept about drug vs justice. iStockphoto

Gavel and marijuana
iStockphoto

Updated at 2:05 p.m. ET

President Obama's live, online chat slated for Monday afternoon is intended to focus on issues raised during last week's State of the Union address -- but his online audience seems to be much more interested in marijuana policy.

Following Mr. Obama's State of the Union address, the White House invited voters to submit questions to the president via YouTube. The president plans on answering some of those questions during a 45-minute "hangout" session on on Google's social networking site Google Plus. In the "hangout" session, Mr. Obama will chat from the West Wing with some of the voters who submitted questions. The chat will be streamed live on YouTube and WhiteHouse.gov at 5:30 p.m. ET.

According to the White House's YouTube page, 133,216 questions were submitted for the discussion (voting is now closed). YouTube visitors could give the questions a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" rating, and more than 1.6 million votes were cast.

Sorting the questions by popularity reveals that 18 of the 20 most popular questions, according to YouTube, have something to do with marijuana policy, including the legalization of marijuana use, the cost of the war on drugs and other related issues.

Questions about marijuana policy have dominated multiple online engagement efforts from the Obama White House. In fact, the second-most popular question for today's "hangout" comes from a retired police officer with the group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) -- just as it did in Mr. Obama's 2011 YouTube chat.

Tom Angell, media relations director for LEAP, says that his organization took simple steps to mobilize support for this year's video question.

"We recorded the video, put it up online... sent the link to our supporters on Faceook and Twitter, and from there people took it into their own hands," Angell told Hotsheet. "All told, the whole thing consisted of three Facebook posts and three tweets -- that's it."

Angell said he's surprised he hasn't witnessed similar mobilization efforts from other advocacy groups.

"It only takes a few thousand votes from supporters to get something to the top in these competitions," he said. "I'm sure PETA has a much bigger email list than we have."

That said, he thinks marijuana policy questions resonate more for a couple of different reasons. For one thing, young people tend to support marijuana legalization more than other age groups and are also more familiar with social media use.

Secondly, drug policy certainly isn't the top issue on voters' minds, Angell said, but it is "the number one concern which is not being addressed at all in any serious way by policy makers."

In the 2011 YouTube discussion, Mr. Obama said he is not in favor of drug legalization. However, acknowledging that the "war on drugs" has not been effective, he said he thinks of drugs as "more of a public health problem." In a 2010 online discussion, he ignored the question. In 2009, Mr. Obama seemed to laugh off the question after stating his opposition to marijuana legalization.

Angell said LEAP was "somewhat pleased" with the president's answer last year. "He basically said legalization is an entirely legitimate topic," Angell said, in what was perhaps the "first time a sitting president has said we can talk about this."

While the president opposes the legalization of marijuana, half of all Americans said it should be made legal in an October Gallup poll while 46 percent said it should stay illegal.

Though most of the popular questions submitted for today's discussion related to marijuana policy, the top question is about copyright infringement -- another hot topic on the Internet. The top question asks the president, "Why are you personally supporting the extradition UK Citizen Richard O'Dwyer for solely linking to copyright infringing works using an Extradition Treaty designed to combat terrorism and to bring terrorists to Judgement in the USA?"

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