On the morning after America voted to make Donald Trump his successor, Barack Obama saw the virtues of legal marijuana. In an “exit interview” with Rolling Stone, conducted on November 9, the president said of cannabis legalization:
Look, I’ve been very clear about my belief that we should try to discourage substance abuse. And I am not somebody who believes that legalization is a panacea. But I do believe that treating this as a public-health issue, the same way we do with cigarettes or alcohol, is the much smarter way to deal with it.
Obama went on to say that the current legal patchwork, “where something that’s legal in one state could get you a 20-year prison sentence in another” is “untenable” — and suggested that he believes federal policy on marijuana may change as rapidly as it did on same-sex marriage.
Not that he has any intention of doing anything to change that policy.
The president insisted that marijuana’s status under federal law would need to be changed by Congress or the Drug Enforcement Administration, even as he suggested that the latter has self-interested reasons for maintaining prohibition.
Thus, advocates for marijuana legalization found Obama’s remarks as frustrating as they were encouraging.
“While President Obama’s comments are correct, and we certainly appreciate how he gave room for states to set their own policies during his administration, it would have been very helpful if he had taken more concrete positive action on this issue,” Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority said in a statement. “However, there is still time to help people who are suffering under drug policies that President Obama correctly criticizes. He could, for example, effectuate blanket commutations of sentences for people who are serving time behind bars for nonviolent drug crimes for no good reason.”
The Obama administration could, arguably, take even more direct action to bring marijuana policy in line with the president’s normative views: The 1970 Controlled Substances Act gives the attorney general the authority to “remove any drug or other substance from the schedules if he finds that the drug or other substance does not meet the requirements for inclusion in any schedule.”
At present, marijuana is a Schedule 1 substance — a distinction reserved for drugs with a high potential for abuse and no known medical use. There is overwhelmingly evidence that cannabis does not fit these criteria. And this evidence has led America’s leading medical authorities, along with the 28 states, to declare marijuana medically useful.
The president can’t dictate the actions of the attorney general. But Obama could have appointed someone he knew to be “420-friendly” enough to call the DEA’s bluff, and move marijuana to a lower schedule.
It’s unclear why Obama has proven so reluctant to exercise executive authority on this particular front, especially considering his own understanding of public opinion.
“If you survey the American people, including Trump voters,” Obama told Rolling Stone. “They’re … in favor, in large numbers, of decriminalizing marijuana.”
If the president thinks marijuana should be treated like cigarettes or alcohol, he should have done more to stop the federal government from treating it like heroin.