Where is the Obama Administration on Marijuana Reform?

The inauguration is over, and electoral politics are in the past for President Obama. Now is the time to take on the issue of marijuana law reform, the rights of the states to deal with legalization and medical marijuana without harassment from the feds, and to reclassify cannabis out of the Schedule 1 at the federal level to enable these and other reforms.

Actual marijuana policy has continued to be brutal at the justice department and DEA levels. We’ve seen extremely tough prosecutions of marijuana growers that appeared to be legal under the laws of their states.

More optimistically, a meeting between Washington Governor Jay Inslee and Attorney General Eric Holder left the governor “very satisfied” with the prospect of the Feds respecting Washington’s initiative 502 which legalized recreational marijuana in that state.

And some Washington insiders have confidence that the President does want to take steps to reform the war on drugs as part of his second term agenda, though there haven’t been any significant public statements.

Personally, the president at least appears to enact a more laissez-faire approach to these issues.

“There are a bunch of things I did that I regret when I was a kid,” said President Obama speaking frankly about his former marijuana use. But, he says, he believes marijuana legalization is not the answer. “My attitude is, substance abuse generally is not good for our kids, not good for our society.”

The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue; Washington DCWhen President Obama spoke with ABC’s Barbara Walter about the legalization of recreational marijuana in the states of Colorado and Washington and again stated he does not believe legalization is the answer, “at this point.”

However, he did say he has “bigger fish to fry,” possibly indicating the feds will practice an hands-off approach to “wait and see” how things play out in the two states.

Though voters in both states spoke and voted to pass the recreational use of marijuana, the substance is still illegal under federal statutes. This means, those who violate those federal laws, even in the states where it is legal, could be subject to prosecution.

“It would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined that it’s legal,” he said.

For anyone that’s been around for the past five years or so, these remarks will sound vaguely familiar. It’s because President Obama said very similar things about medical marijuana legislation when he was running for office in 2008. Then, we believed him. But the federal government went on to lead more medical marijuana dispensary raids than any other president. So, medical cannabis activists and patients have legitimate cause to be angry.

Obama’s most recent statements say nothing about dispensaries, growers, or the states themselves. He doesn’t say that they will leave everyone alone, merely that going after individual recreational users would, in essence, be a waste of time. Many believe the federal government will sue the states to upend the recent legislation.

Attorney General Eric Holder hasn’t spoke out with quite as much vigor as he did when California was considering legalization a few years ago. He said he would announce a policy on the new laws “relatively soon.”

“This is a tough problem, because Congress has not yet changed the law,” said the President. “I head up the executive branch; we’re supposed to be carrying out laws. And so what we’re going to need to have is a conversation about, how do you reconcile a federal law that still says marijuana is a federal offense and state laws that say that it’s legal?”

This issue is too important to ignore. Lives, health, and freedom is at stake for every minute the Fed continues to prosecute the war on drugs. And turning around the government drug war industrial complex will take time, even if Obama were to make it a priority.

So, what’s it going to be, Mr. President?

About David Matson

David writes about criminal justice issues.
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