He argues that cannabis should be treated as a public-health issue along the lines of cigarettes and alcohol — and pointedly notes that most of those who voted for President-elect Donald Trump agree with him.
These remarks send an unmistakable message to Trump at a time when his nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions for the position of U.S. Attorney General is still sending shock waves through the marijuana industry in Colorado and beyond. But a national marijuana advocate who keeps a close eye on the Colorado scene criticizes Obama for waiting so long to make these statements and encourages him to take positive action on the drug-war front before leaving office.
As we've reported, Obama has mostly taken a hands-off approach to the rise of the recreational marijuana industry in Colorado. In August 2013, for instance, his administration announced that it would not sue to stop Amendment 64, the ballot measure that legalized limited recreational marijuana sales here. Moreover, a memo issued under the name of Deputy Attorney General James Cole announced that the Justice Department would shy away from shuttering legal cannabis businesses in states with robust regulatory regimes like the one in Colorado.
Then, in early 2015, during a chat with YouTube personality Hank Green, Obama predicted that more states would follow Colorado's pot legalization lead.
"What you're seeing now is Colorado, Washington through state referenda, they're experimenting with legal marijuana," he said, noting, "The position of my administration has been that we still have federal laws that classify marijuana as an illegal substance, but we're not going to spend a lot of resources trying to turn back decisions that have been made at the state level on this issue. My suspicion is that you're gonna see other states start looking at this."
From there, Obama expanded the subject to drug policy in general, pointing out that "we've treated this exclusively as a criminal problem. It's been counterproductive and it's been devastating in a lot of minority communities. It represents the possibility of at least unequal application of the law.... The good news is, we're starting to get some interest among Republications as well as Democrats in reforming the criminal justice system."
He added: "There's just a smarter way of dealing with these issues."
Here's that interview:
Obama's conversation with Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner goes further.
"If you survey the American people, including Trump voters, they're...in favor, in large numbers, of decriminalizing marijuana," Obama said. "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."
He also cast a negative light on the tactics long used against marijuana by federal law enforcement agencies. "As you might imagine, the DEA, whose job it is historically to enforce drug laws, is not always going to be on the cutting edge about these issues," he maintained. "It is untenable over the long term for the Justice Department or the DEA to be enforcing a patchwork of laws, where something that's legal in one state could get you a twenty-year prison sentence in another. So this is a debate that is now ripe, much in the same way that we ended up making progress on same-sex marriage."
These words resonate in the current climate partly because of the marijuana views of AG-nominee Sessions, a hard-core cannabis prohibitionist who once joked that he liked the KKK until he learned they smoked pot. Sessions's expected elevation to the new administration's cabinet raises the possibility of a crackdown on legal marijuana in places such as Colorado despite Trump's earlier statements about respecting states' rights in such situations. (Of course, Trump, although he's been a medical marijuana supporter, has also talked about what he described as "big problems" with Colorado's recreational marijuana business.)
Marijuana Majority founder Tom Angell has mixed feelings about the timing of Obama's latest pot declarations.
“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 before it was almost time to vacate the Oval Office," Angell writes to Westword via e-mail. "That this president didn’t apply pressure on the DEA to reschedule marijuana this year will likely go down as one of the biggest disappointments of the Obama era."
However, Angell continues, "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 whatsoever. Now, more than ever, it’s time for President Obama to walk the walk in addition to talking the talk."
Because if he doesn't, there's no guarantee his successor will do so.