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Marijuana: Obama's wrong about his ability to reschedule pot, advocate says

President Barack Obama may be regretting his decision to talk marijuana in an interview last month. After telling the New Yorker that, in his opinion, pot is less risky than alcohol for the individual user, Obama was asked in a CNN followup if he'd consider rescheduling cannabis, currently listed by the Drug Enforcement Administration as a drug whose dangers rival heroin's. He replied that only Congress can do that, but a prominent marijuana advocate says he's wrong and offers documentation to support his argument.

As we've reported, the David Remnick-penned New Yorker piece quotes Obama acknowledging that "I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life."

But then he added, "I don't think it is more dangerous than alcohol."

Obama during a 2012 campaign appearance in Boulder.
Obama during a 2012 campaign appearance in Boulder.
Photo by Eric Gruneisen

When asked if he believes marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol, Obama maintained that it wasn't as problematic "in terms of its impact on the individual consumer."

Afterward, marijuana advocates such as Mason Tvert praised Obama's statement, and Colorado Representative Jared Polis even offered to take the President on a guided tour of a marijuana store and grow. But push-back followed Obama's subsequent sit-down with CNN's Jake Tapper.

We've shared a video and partial transcript of the interview below, but in response to Tapper's question about whether he's considering "not making marijuana a Schedule One narcotic," Obama replied, "Well, first of all, what is and isn't a Schedule One narcotic is a job for Congress."

"I think it's the DEA that decides," Tapper interjected.

Obama disagreed. In his words, "It's -- it's not -- it's not something by ourselves that we start changing. No, there are laws under -- undergirding those determinations...."

If that's the case, notes Marijuana Majority chairman Tom Angell, there's nothing on the Justice Department web page about drug scheduling that alludes to such a procedure. Indeed, the regulations, which we've also included below, repeatedly state that decisions about scheduling are made by the U.S. Attorney General, a presidential appointee -- currently Eric Holder.

Does this mean Obama doesn't understand how the process work? Or is he merely attempting to dodge responsibility for rescheduling because he fears the political consequences of making such a move without Congressional support?

Tom Angell as seen in a photo taken during a Denver visit.
Tom Angell as seen in a photo taken during a Denver visit.

Here's Angell's take, shared with Westword via e-mail.

"It's very unfortunate that President Obama appears to want to pass the buck to Congress when it comes to marijuana laws, especially when his State of the Union speech...focused on actions he can take to move America forward without having to wait for the legislative branch to get its act together," Angell writes.

He adds, "If the president truly believes what he says about marijuana, he has a moral imperative to make the law match up with his views and the views of the majority of the American people, without delay."

The bottom line, from Angell's perspective: "He should initiate the long overdue rescheduling of marijuana today."

Continue to see a CNN video, read a partial transcript, and see information about scheduling drugs from the Department of Justice.

Here's a video of President Barack Obama's interview with CNN's Jake Tapper....

...and here's a portion of the transcript:

TAPPER: Another big issue in this country right now has to do with the legalization of marijuana. You gave an interview to "The New Yorker's" David Remnick and you said that you thought smoking pot was a bad habit, but you didn't think it was any worse for a person than drinking.

Now, that contradicts the official Obama administration policy, both on the Web site of the Office of National Drug Control Policy and also the fact that marijuana is considered a Schedule One narcotic, along with heroin and Ecstasy.

Now, do you think you were maybe talking just a little too casually about it with Remnick and "The New Yorker?"

Or are you considering not making marijuana a Schedule One narcotic?

OBAMA: Well, first of all, what is and isn't a Schedule One narcotic is a job for Congress. It's not...

TAPPER: I think it's the DEA that decides...

OBAMA: It's -- it's not -- it's not something by ourselves that we start changing. No, there are laws under -- undergirding those determinations....

TAPPER: Would you support that move?

OBAMA: But the broader point, I stand by my belief, based, I think, on the scientific evidence, that marijuana, for casual users, individual users, is subject to abuse, just like alcohol is and should be treated as a public health problem and challenge.

But as I said in the interview, my concern is when you end up having very heavy criminal penalties for individual users that have been applied unevenly and in some cases with a racial disparity.

I think that is a problem. We're going to see what happens in the experiments in Colorado and Washington. The Department of Justice, you know, under Eric Holder, has said that we are going to continue to enforce federal laws. But in those states, we recognize that we don't have the -- the resources, the federal government doesn't have the resources to police whether somebody is smoking a joint on a corner. And we are trying to provide them structures to make sure that, you know, big time drug traffickers, the spillover effect of the violence, potentially, of a drug trade are not creeping out of this experiment with - that is taking place.

Over the long-term, what I believe is if we can deal with some of the criminal penalty issues, then we can really tackle what is a problem not just for marijuana, but also alcohol, also cigarettes, also harder drugs, and that is, try to make sure that our kids don't get don't get into these habits in the first place.

And, you know, the incarceration model that we've taken particularly around marijuana, does not seem to have produced the kinds of results that we've set.

But I do offer a cautionary note. And I said this in the - in the interview those who think legalization is a panacea, I think they have to ask themselves...

TAPPER: Right.

OBAMA: -- some tough questions, too, because if we start having a situation where big corporations with a lot of resources and distribution and marketing arms are suddenly going out there peddling marijuana, then the levels of abuse that may take place are going to...

TAPPER: Are going to be...

OBAMA: -- are going to be higher.

Below, read the contents of a page on the Justice Department website pertaining to the scheduling of drugs:

Title 21 United States Code (USC) Controlled Substances Act

SUBCHAPTER I -- CONTROL AND ENFORCEMENT

Part B -- Authority to Control; Standards and Schedules

§811. Authority and criteria for classification of substances

(a) Rules and regulations of Attorney General; hearing

The Attorney General shall apply the provisions of this subchapter to the controlled substances listed in the schedules established by section 812 of this title and to any other drug or other substance added to such schedules under this subchapter. Except as provided in subsections (d) and (e) of this section, the Attorney General may by rule --

(1) add to such a schedule or transfer between such schedules any drug or other substance if he --

(A) finds that such drug or other substance has a potential for abuse, and

(B) makes with respect to such drug or other substance the findings prescribed by subsection (b) of section 812 of this title for the schedule in which such drug is to be placed; or

(2) 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.

Rules of the Attorney General under this subsection shall be made on the record after opportunity for a hearing pursuant to the rulemaking procedures prescribed by subchapter II of chapter 5 of title 5. Proceedings for the issuance, amendment, or repeal of such rules may be initiated by the Attorney General (1) on his own motion, (2) at the request of the Secretary, or (3) on the petition of any interested party.

(b) Evaluation of drugs and other substances

The Attorney General shall, before initiating proceedings under subsection (a) of this section to control a drug or other substance or to remove a drug or other substance entirely from the schedules, and after gathering the necessary data, request from the Secretary a scientific and medical evaluation, and his recommendations, as to whether such drug or other substance should be so controlled or removed as a controlled substance. In making such evaluation and recommendations, the Secretary shall consider the factors listed in paragraphs (2), (3), (6), (7), and (8) of subsection (c) of this section and any scientific or medical considerations involved in paragraphs (1), (4), and (5) of such subsection. The recommendations of the Secretary shall include recommendations with respect to the appropriate schedule, if any, under which such drug or other substance should be listed. The evaluation and the recommendations of the Secretary shall be made in writing and submitted to the Attorney General within a reasonable time. The recommendations of the Secretary to the Attorney General shall be binding on the Attorney General as to such scientific and medical matters, and if the Secretary recommends that a drug or other substance not be controlled, the Attorney General shall not control the drug or other substance. If the Attorney General determines that these facts and all other relevant data constitute substantial evidence of potential for abuse such as to warrant control or substantial evidence that the drug or other substance should be removed entirely from the schedules, he shall initiate proceedings for control or removal, as the case may be, under subsection (a) of this section.

(c) Factors determinative of control or removal from schedules

In making any finding under subsection (a) of this section or under subsection (b) of section 812 of this title, the Attorney General shall consider the following factors with respect to each drug or other substance proposed to be controlled or removed from the schedules:

(1) Its actual or relative potential for abuse.

(2) Scientific evidence of its pharmacological effect, if known.

(3) The state of current scientific knowledge regarding the drug or other substance.

(4) Its history and current pattern of abuse.

(5) The scope, duration, and significance of abuse.

(6) What, if any, risk there is to the public health.

(7) Its psychic or physiological dependence liability.

(8) Whether the substance is an immediate precursor of a substance already controlled under this subchapter.

(d) International treaties, conventions, and protocols requiring control; procedures respecting changes in drug schedules of Convention on Psychotropic Substances

(1) If control is required by United States obligations under international treaties, conventions, or protocols in effect on October 27, 1970, the Attorney General shall issue an order controlling such drug under the schedule he deems most appropriate to carry out such obligations, without regard to the findings required by subsection (a) of this section or section 812(b) of this title and without regard to the procedures prescribed by subsections (a) and (b) of this section.

(2)(A) Whenever the Secretary of State receives notification from the Secretary-General of the United Nations that information has been transmitted by or to the World Health Organization, pursuant to article 2 of the Convention on Psychotropic Substances, which may justify adding a drug or other substance to one of the schedules of the Convention, transferring a drug or substance from one schedule to another, or deleting it from the schedules, the Secretary of State shall immediately transmit the notice to the Secretary of Health and Human Services who shall publish it in the Federal Register and provide opportunity to interested persons to submit to him comments respecting the scientific and medical evaluations which he is to prepare respecting such drug or substance. The Secretary of Health and Human Services shall prepare for transmission through the Secretary of State to the World Health Organization such medical and scientific evaluations as may be appropriate regarding the possible action that could be proposed by the World Health Organization respecting the drug or substance with respect to which a notice was transmitted under this subparagraph.

(B) Whenever the Secretary of State receives information that the Commission on Narcotic Drugs of the United Nations proposes to decide whether to add a drug or other substance to one of the schedules of the Convention, transfer a drug or substance from one schedule to another, or delete it from the schedules, the Secretary of State shall transmit timely notice to the Secretary of Health and Human Services of such information who shall publish a summary of such information in the Federal Register and provide opportunity to interested persons to submit to him comments respecting the recommendation which he is to furnish, pursuant to this subparagraph, respecting such proposal. The Secretary of Health and Human Services shall evaluate the proposal and furnish a recommendation to the Secretary of State which shall be binding on the representative of the United States in discussions and negotiations relating to the proposal.

(3) When the United States receives notification of a scheduling decision pursuant to article 2 of the Convention on Psychotropic Substances that a drug or other substance has been added or transferred to a schedule specified in the notification or receives notification (referred to in this subsection as a "schedule notice") that existing legal controls applicable under this subchapter to a drug or substance and the controls required by the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act [21 U.S.C. 301 et seq.] do not meet the requirements of the schedule of the Convention in which such drug or substance has been placed, the Secretary of Health and Human Services after consultation with the Attorney General, shall first determine whether existing legal controls under this subchapter applicable to the drug or substance and the controls required by the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, meet the requirements of the schedule specified in the notification or schedule notice and shall take the following action:

(A) If such requirements are met by such existing controls but the Secretary of Health and Human Services nonetheless believes that more stringent controls should be applied to the drug or substance, the Secretary shall recommend to the Attorney General that he initiate proceedings for scheduling the drug or substance, pursuant to subsections (a) and (b) of this section, to apply to such controls.

(B) If such requirements are not met by such existing controls and the Secretary of Health and Human Services concurs in the scheduling decision or schedule notice transmitted by the notification, the Secretary shall recommend to the Attorney General that he initiate proceedings for scheduling the drug or substance under the appropriate schedule pursuant to subsections (a) and (b) of this section.

(C) If such requirements are not met by such existing controls and the Secretary of Health and Human Services does not concur in the scheduling decision or schedule notice transmitted by the notification, the Secretary shall --

(i) if he deems that additional controls are necessary to protect the public health and safety, recommend to the Attorney General that he initiate proceedings for scheduling the drug or substance pursuant to subsections (a) and (b) of this section, to apply such additional controls;

(ii) request the Secretary of State to transmit a notice of qualified acceptance, within the period specified in the Convention, pursuant to paragraph 7 of article 2 of the Convention, to the Secretary-General of the United Nations;

(iii) request the Secretary of State to transmit a notice of qualified acceptance as prescribed in clause (ii) and request the Secretary of State to ask for a review by the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, in accordance with paragraph 8 of article 2 of the Convention, of the scheduling decision; or

(iv) in the case of a schedule notice, request the Secretary of State to take appropriate action under the Convention to initiate proceedings to remove the drug or substance from the schedules under the Convention or to transfer the drug or substance to a schedule under the Convention different from the one specified in the schedule notice.

(4)(A) If the Attorney General determines, after consultation with the Secretary of Health and Human Services, that proceedings initiated under recommendations made under paragraph \1\ (B) or (C)(i) of paragraph (3) will not be completed within the time period required by paragraph 7 of article 2 of the Convention, the Attorney General, after consultation with the Secretary and after providing interested persons opportunity to submit comments respecting the requirements of the temporary order to be issued under this sentence, shall issue a temporary order controlling the drug or substance under schedule IV or V, whichever is most appropriate to carry out the minimum United States obligations under paragraph 7 of article 2 of the Convention. As a part of such order, the Attorney General shall, after consultation with the Secretary, except such drug or substance from the application of any provision of part C of this subchapter which he finds is not required to carry out the United States obligations under paragraph 7 of article 2 of the Convention. In the case of proceedings initiated under subparagraph (B) of paragraph (3), the Attorney General, concurrently with the issuance of such order, shall request the Secretary of State to transmit a notice of qualified acceptance to the Secretary-General of the United Nations pursuant to paragraph 7 of article 2 of the Convention. A temporary order issued under this subparagraph controlling a drug or other substance subject to proceedings initiated under subsections (a) and (b) of this section shall expire upon the effective date of the application to the drug or substance of the controls resulting from such proceedings.

(B) After a notice of qualified acceptance of a scheduling decision with respect to a drug or other substance is transmitted to the Secretary-General of the United Nations in accordance with clause (ii) or (iii) of paragraph (3)(C) or after a request has been made under clause (iv) of such paragraph with respect to a drug or substance described in a schedule notice, the Attorney General, after consultation with the Secretary of Health and Human Services and after providing interested persons opportunity to submit comments respecting the requirements of the order to be issued under this sentence, shall issue an order controlling the drug or substance under schedule IV or V, whichever is most appropriate to carry out the minimum United States obligations under paragraph 7 of article 2 of the Convention in the case of a drug or substance for which a notice of qualified acceptance was transmitted or whichever the Attorney General determines is appropriate in the case of a drug or substance described in a schedule notice. As a part of such order, the Attorney General shall, after consultation with the Secretary, except such drug or substance from the application of any provision of part C of this subchapter which he finds is not required to carry out the United States obligations under paragraph 7 of article 2 of the Convention. If, as a result of a review under paragraph 8 of article 2 of the Convention of the scheduling decision with respect to which a notice of qualified acceptance was transmitted in accordance with clause (ii) or (iii) of paragraph (3)(C)--

(i) the decision is reversed, and

(ii) the drug or substance subject to such decision is not required to be controlled under schedule IV or V to carry out the minimum United States obligations under paragraph 7 of article 2 of the Convention,

the order issued under this subparagraph with respect to such drug or substance shall expire upon receipt by the United States of the review decision. If, as a result of action taken pursuant to action initiated under a request transmitted under clause (iv) of paragraph (3)(C), the drug or substance with respect to which such action was taken is not required to be controlled under schedule IV or V, the order issued under this paragraph with respect to such drug or substance shall expire upon receipt by the United States of a notice of the action taken with respect to such drug or substance under the Convention.

(C) An order issued under subparagraph (A) or (B) may be issued without regard to the findings required by subsection (a) of this section or by section 812(b) of this title and without regard to the procedures prescribed by subsection (a) or (b) of this section.

(5) Nothing in the amendments made by the Psychotropic Substances Act of 1978 or the regulations or orders promulgated thereunder shall be construed to preclude requests by the Secretary of Health and Human Services or the Attorney General through the Secretary of State, pursuant to article 2 or other applicable provisions of the Convention, for review of scheduling decisions under such Convention, based on new or additional information.

(e) Immediate precursors

The Attorney General may, without regard to the findings required by subsection (a) of this section or section 812(b) of this title and without regard to the procedures prescribed by subsections (a) and (b) of this section, place an immediate precursor in the same schedule in which the controlled substance of which it is an immediate precursor is placed or in any other schedule with a higher numerical designation. If the Attorney General designates a substance as an immediate precursor and places it in a schedule, other substances shall not be placed in a schedule solely because they are its precursors.

(f) Abuse potential

If, at the time a new-drug application is submitted to the Secretary for any drug having a stimulant, depressant, or hallucinogenic effect on the central nervous system, it appears that such drug has an abuse potential, such information shall be forwarded by the Secretary to the Attorney General.

(g) Exclusion of non-narcotic substances sold over the counter without a prescription; dextromethorphan; exemption of substances lacking abuse potential

(1) The Attorney General shall by regulation exclude any non-narcotic drug which contains a controlled substance from the application of this subchapter and subchapter II of this chapter if such drug may, under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act [21 U.S.C. 301 et seq.], be lawfully sold over the counter without a prescription.

(2) Dextromethorphan shall not be deemed to be included in any schedule by reason of enactment of this subchapter unless controlled after October 27, 1970 pursuant to the foregoing provisions of this section.

(3) The Attorney General may, by regulation, exempt any compound, mixture, or preparation containing a controlled substance from the application of all or any part of this subchapter if he finds such compound, mixture, or preparation meets the requirements of one of the following categories:

(A) A mixture, or preparation containing a nonnarcotic controlled substance, which mixture or preparation is approved for prescription use, and which contains one or more other active ingredients which are not listed in any schedule and which are included therein in such combinations, quantity, proportion, or concentration as to vitiate the potential for abuse.

(B) A compound, mixture, or preparation which contains any controlled substance, which is not for administration to a human being or animal, and which is packaged in such form or concentration, or with adulterants or denaturants, so that as packaged it does not present any significant potential for abuse.

(C) Upon the recommendation of the Secretary of Health and Human Services, a compound, mixture, or preparation which contains any anabolic steroid, which is intended for administration to a human being or an animal, and which, because of its concentration, preparation, formulation or delivery system, does not present any significant potential for abuse.

(h) Temporary scheduling to avoid imminent hazards to public safety

(1) If the Attorney General finds that the scheduling of a substance in schedule I on a temporary basis is necessary to avoid an imminent hazard to the public safety, he may, by order and without regard to the requirements of subsection (b) of this section relating to the Secretary of Health and Human Services, schedule such substance in schedule I if the substance is not listed in any other schedule in section 812 of this title or if no exemption or approval is in effect for the substance under section 505 of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act [21 U.S.C. 355]. Such an order may not be issued before the expiration of thirty days from--

(A) the date of the publication by the Attorney General of a notice in the Federal Register of the intention to issue such order and the grounds upon which such order is to be issued, and

(B) the date the Attorney General has transmitted the notice required by paragraph (4).

(2) The scheduling of a substance under this subsection shall expire at the end of 2 years from the date of the issuance of the order scheduling such substance, except that the Attorney General may, during the pendency of proceedings under subsection (a)(1) of this section with respect to the substance, extend the temporary scheduling for up to 1 year.

(3) When issuing an order under paragraph (1), the Attorney General shall be required to consider, with respect to the finding of an imminent hazard to the public safety, only those factors set forth in paragraphs (4), (5), and (6) of subsection (c) of this section, including actual abuse, diversion from legitimate channels, and clandestine importation, manufacture, or distribution.

(4) The Attorney General shall transmit notice of an order proposed to be issued under paragraph (1) to the Secretary of Health and Human Services. In issuing an order under paragraph (1), the Attorney General shall take into consideration any comments submitted by the Secretary in response to a notice transmitted pursuant to this paragraph.

(5) An order issued under paragraph (1) with respect to a substance shall be vacated upon the conclusion of a subsequent rulemaking proceeding initiated under subsection (a) of this section with respect to such substance.

(6) An order issued under paragraph (1) is not subject to judicial review.

(Pub. L. 91-513, title II, §201, Oct. 27, 1970, 84 Stat. 1245; Pub. L. 95-633, title I, §102(a), Nov. 10, 1978, 92 Stat. 3769; Pub. L. 96-88, title V, §509(b), Oct. 17, 1979, 93 Stat. 695; Pub. L. 98-473, title II, §§508, 509(a), Oct. 12, 1984, 98 Stat. 2071, 2072; Pub. L. 108-358, §2(b), Oct. 22, 2004, 118 Stat. 1663; Pub. L. 112-144, title XI, §1153, July 9, 2012, 126 Stat. 1132.)

References in Text

This subchapter, referred to in subsecs. (a), (c)(8), (d)(3), (4)(A), (B), and (g)(2), (3), was in the original "this title", meaning title II of Pub. L. 91-513, Oct. 27, 1970, 84 Stat. 1242, as amended, and is popularly known as the "Controlled Substances Act". For complete classification of title II to the Code, see second paragraph of Short Title note set out under section 801 of this title and Tables.

The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, referred to in subsecs. (d)(3) and (g)(1), is act June 25, 1938, ch. 675, 52 Stat. 1040, as amended, which is classified generally to chapter 9 (§301 et seq.) of this title. For complete classification of this Act to the Code, see section 301 of this title and Tables.

Schedules I, IV, and V, referred to in subsecs. (d)(4)(A), (B), and (h)(1), are set out in section 812(c) of this title.

The Psychotropic Substances Act of 1978, referred to in subsec. (d)(5), is Pub. L. 95-633, Nov. 10, 1978, 92 Stat. 3768, which enacted sections 801a, 830, and 852 of this title, amended sections 352, 802, 811, 812, 823, 827, 841 to 843, 872, 881, 952, 953, and 965 of this title and section 242a of Title 42, The Public Health and Welfare, repealed section 830 of this title effective Jan. 1, 1981, and enacted provisions set out as notes under sections 801, 801a, 812, and 830 of this title. For complete classification of this Act to the Code, see Short Title of 1978 Amendment note set out under section 801 of this title and Tables.

This subchapter and subchapter II of this chapter, referred to in subsec. (g)(1), was in the original "titles II and III of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act", which was translated as meaning titles II and III of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, Pub. L. 91-513, Oct. 27, 1970, 84 Stat. 1242, 1285, as amended, to reflect the probable intent of Congress. Title II is classified principally to this subchapter and part A of title III comprises subchapter II of this chapter. For complete classification of this Act to the Code, see Short Title notes set out under section 801 of this title and Tables.

Amendments

2012 -- Subsec. (h)(2). Pub. L. 112-144 substituted "2 years" for "one year" and "1 year" for "six months".

2004 -- Subsec. (g)(1). Pub. L. 108-358, §2(b)(1), substituted "drug which contains a controlled substance from the application of this subchapter and subchapter II of this chapter if such drug" for "substance from a schedule if such substance".

Subsec. (g)(3)(C). Pub. L. 108-358, §2(b)(2), added subpar. (C).

1984 -- Subsec. (g)(3). Pub. L. 98-473, §509(a), added par. (3).

Subsec. (h). Pub. L. 98-473, §508, added subsec. (h).

1978 -- Subsec. (d). Pub. L. 95-633 designated existing provisions as par. (1) and added pars. (2) to (5).

Change of Name

"Secretary of Health and Human Services" substituted for "Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare" in subsec. (d)(2), (3), (4)(A), (B), (5) pursuant to section 509(b) of Pub. L. 96-88 which is classified to section 3508(b) of Title 20, Education.

Effective Date of 2004 Amendment

Amendment by Pub. L. 108-358 effective 90 days after Oct. 22, 2004, see section 2(d) of Pub. L. 108-358, set out as a note under section 802 of this title.

Effective Date of 1978 Amendment

Amendment by Pub. L. 95-633 effective on date the Convention on Psychotropic Substances enters into force in the United States [July 15, 1980], see section 112 of Pub. L. 95-633, set out as an Effective Date note under section 801a of this title.

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More from our Marijuana archive circa January 21: "Obama's belief that pot's less risky than alcohol (sort of) is refreshing, says Mason Tvert."