President Obama on Marijuana: Major Reform or Empty Promises?

Share this with your friends

It isn’t always that a news story eclipses Superbowl playoff reports on Sundays in January – but yesterday’s New Yorker interview with President Obama drew widespread attention that certainly took some focus off the big game between the New England Patriots and the Denver Broncos. For the first time ever, the president made an unequivocal statement on marijuana legalization, commenting on measures in Colorado and Washington with the explanation, “it’s important for it to go forward because it’s important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished.” (Read the entire interview here)

The president also commented on the racial disparity of marijuana arrests, explaining that “Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do … And African-American kids and Latino kids are more likely to be poor and less likely to have the resources and the support to avoid unduly harsh penalties.”

These statements are certainly big news, and undoubtedly suggest that our president may finally initiate – or at least support – some major changes in federal drug reform policy. Obama’s statement that “I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol,” gives undeniable validity to his acknowledgement that marijuana laws in the US are unjust and that much of the propaganda spread during every presidential administration since the 1930’s is largely null and void by the president’s own admission.

But how far will Obama be willing to go? Will there be real change, or are his words just empty?

Obama’s New Yorker statements aren’t the first indication that federal marijuana policy is evolving: in August 2013, a memo to federal prosecutors by Deputy Attorney General James Cole stated that the federal government would largely allow states to determine their own treatment of marijuana laws, focusing instead on preventing marijuana sales to minors, and cracking down on illegal cartel and gang activity and interstate trafficking. Following the release of Cole’s memo, Attorney General Eric Holder confirmed that  the federal government would “trust but verify” that Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and Washington Governor Jay Inslee would ensure that their states were imposing regulations that would work to enforce the memo’s intended objectives.

While the 2013 Cole Memo seemed to indicate progress, many advocates remained skeptical. After all, this wasn’t the first federal memo that seemed to indicate evolving federal policy on marijuana. The Ogden Memo of 2009 appeared to imply that medical marijuana states had a green light to develop and implement state policies without federal interference, and yet the number of federal raids that followed was unprecedented, leading advocates to remain wary of any promises made by the Obama administration.

It is also important to note that Obama’s New Yorker statements regarding marijuana were not entirely positive in tone – or even scientifically accurate. “I view it as a bad habit and a vice,” said the president, “not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life.”

Wait, WHAT? Come on, President Choom – didn’t you at least watch Sanjay Gupta’s weed special? Comparing marijuana to tobacco is completely irrational in the context of medicine or health. However, the flip side of this statement can be seen to indicate that since tobacco is legal, why not marijuana? It can also be similarly noted that while marijuana is certainly far less “dangerous” than alcohol, the president’s statement that it “isn’t any more dangerous” can also be viewed in light of the fact that the federal prohibition of alcohol is long over.

All in all, Obama’s statements in yesterday’s New Yorker piece certainly seem to indicate significant change. Advocates now have real hope that as the president’s last term draws to a close,  the former Choom Gang leader will  entirely overturn the federal prohibition of marijuana, or at the very least, change marijuana’s federal status as a Schedule I drug

And since the majority of Americans now support legalization, the possibility of it being Obama’s last-minute legacy doesn’t seem all that far-fetched.