In a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine, president Barack Obama took a clear, pro-decriminalization stance on cannabis. His latest statements stand in stark contrast with his administration’s increasingly hands-off but ultimately noncommittal stance.
In his most pro-cannabis statements of the decade, President Obama deviated from the moderate, wait-and-see tone he’s previously employed and leaned hard on the type of idealistic rhetoric not heard from him since the 2008 presidential primary.
When asked about cannabis by Rolling Stone, the professorial reserve of governing Obama vanishes and a wild, 2008 campaign trail Obama appears.
“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 said.
This statement comes from a man who, until recently, had his Department of Justice prosecuting patients across the nation. Some of the property seizures only ended last month, and the Obama DOJ continues its legal proceedings against Harborside around the application of IRS Tax code section 280E — the results of which are expected to have major implications for the industry going forward.
Early in the article, Obama uses a reference to Trump voters supporting marijuana decriminalization in large numbers as some sort of anti-establishment bipartisan bridge issue along with other issues like distrust of Wall Street, a higher minimum wage, and surprisingly, gay marriage.
Later on in the interview, the Stone’s reporter, Jann S. Wenner, presses the president more directly on the cannabis issue. Wenner mentioning that the whole West Coast has access to legal cannabis, says that the War on Drugs has failed completely and reiterates the fact that marijuana is still a Schedule I substance.
And it’s from this jumping off point that Obama dives into the most pro-cannabis rhetoric of his presidency — with only a month and a half to go of his term.
After noting, as he has in the past, that legalization isn’t the answer to all of our problems, he said there are other entities in play when it comes to evolving U.S. marijuana law.
“Typically how these classifications are changed are not done by presidential edict but are done either legislatively or through the DEA,” Obama said. “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.”
Wenner was quick to call him out, asking the president when he himself would be on this “cutting edge” of the issue. The president quickly pointed to his lame duck status and fell back on his go-to talking point — it would be impossible for the DEA to enforce cannabis laws, which now vary more and more from state to state on an annual basis via elections and state house efforts.
“This is a debate that is now ripe,” he said, “much in the same way that we ended up making progress on same-sex marriage.”
While the reinforcement of a stance we haven’t heard from Obama in a long time (more or less since his election) was nice, many — like Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority — are still discouraged by the lack of action on cannabis from the president during his term.
“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 said. “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, there is still time to help people who are suffering under drug policies that President Obama correctly criticizes.”
Angell added that there is still at least one direct action the president can take on his way out.
“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” he said. “Now, more than ever, it’s time for President Obama to walk the walk in addition to talking the talk.”
As the cannabis industry, and the rest of America, prepare for uncharted new waters as the January 20th inauguration of president elect Donald Trump rapidly approaches, California Cannabis Industry Association President Sean Luse told Cannabis Now he hopes the incoming administration honors the clearly expressed will of the people on cannabis decriminalization.
“I just hope Trump read that quote and understands that his people voted for legal cannabis too,” he said.
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