Obama Retreats From the War on Drugs

He shouldn't stop now.

The American people once elected a president who favored decriminalizing marijuana. Jimmy Carter endorsed the change in 1976 as a candidate and again after taking office. Nothing happened, and more decades have been wasted in the war on cannabis and other drugs.

Now we have a president who, like his two immediate predecessors, got baked in his youth yet has declined to push for any major change in federal drug laws. Barack Obama, however, has indicated some willingness to dial back prohibition.

In a recent interview with The New Yorker magazine, the president said he regards smoking weed "as a bad habit and a vice" but added, "I don't think it is more dangerous than alcohol." Is it less dangerous than alcohol? Yes, "in terms of its impact on the individual consumer," Obama admitted.

He also noted the disparity of enforcement: "Middle-class kids don't get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do." Asked about legalization, he responded mildly that its advocates "are probably overstating the case." That's a notable departure from 2009, when he mocked a question about it during a video town hall meeting.

But a change of tone would be cold comfort without a change of policy. In some significant ways, Obama has moved away from the intolerant mindset that has afflicted every recent president going back to Ronald Reagan.

The biggest surprise is his stance toward the legalization experiments in Colorado and Washington.

When the issue was placed on the ballot, White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske publicly rejected the idea but didn't make a big deal of it. Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, told me, "His silence on those measures in 2012 was noticeable."

More important is what the administration did after they passed: It backed off. The Justice Department could have instructed federal prosecutors to go after marijuana possession and sales, to dramatize the president's stern opposition. Instead, it instructed them to let the states go their own way, focusing federal enforcement on preventing major drug trafficking and sales to minors.

Had the initiatives passed under George W. Bush, the enforcement policy would have been less indulgent.

Not standing in the way of states trying legalization is a big deal. It shows a somewhat open mind about the wisdom of the status quo and the practical effects of liberalization. Not since Carter was in the White House has an administration been willing to concede that there may be alternatives to the drug war.

If Obama really believes what he says, though, merely doing nothing is not quite enough. Getting any change in federal law through Congress is utterly beyond hope—even with 58 percent of Americans now favoring legalization of cannabis, according to Gallup. But he has some presidential authority that, unlike most of his powers, is just sitting there collecting dust.

The most obvious thing he could do is to remove the barriers to scientific research on the therapeutic use of marijuana. Anyone who wants to do such studies now faces two major hurdles: getting cannabis from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the only approved source, and getting permission from the Drug Enforcement Administration and other agencies with a history of resistance.

Scientists say the federal weed is not good enough to be used in clinical studies. So Lyle Craker, a professor of plant sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, applied in 2001 for permission to cultivate his own supply for medical research. In 2007, a federal administrative law judge ruled that allowing Craker to grow it "would be in the public interest." DEA, however, refused.

Craker is still waiting, 13 years later. So are patients who could benefit from more information about whether cannabis can cure them—or, for that matter, harm them.

Obama could order the DEA to let him proceed. He also could insist that the agency license other private production of cannabis for research. He could scrap the requirement that the Public Health Service approve all privately funded research on marijuana—a rule that, as Rick Doblin of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies notes, doesn't apply to other drugs, including LSD and Ecstasy.

The president could make changes like these with zero political risk. No one expects him to sue for peace in the war on drugs. But he's begun a retreat that shouldn't stop now.

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  • Andrew S.||

    Why would anyone believe a word of what he says at this point? Politicians are usually all talk and no action, but he's taken that to an absurd level.

    This happening is about as likely as me being struck by lightning during a Florida blizzard while driving to cash in my three straight winning powerball jackpot tickets.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Yup. There's a difference between a retreat and a feint.

  • Smilin' Joe Fission||

    I have zero faith in this President actually being serious about any of what he says until his actions show me otherwise.

  • crazyfingers||

    If you haven't noticed, Chapman is naive.

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  • ||

    "But a change of tone would be cold comfort without a change of policy."

    Prepare yourself Chapman. Winter is coming.

  • Smilin' Joe Fission||

    The Obama Vortex

  • BakedPenguin||

    So Obama is Joffery, is what you're saying?

  • CE||

    His dragons are really just big drones.

  • SIV||

    " Asked about legalization, he responded mildly that its advocates "are probably overstating the case."

    Probably? Of course advocates for continuing prohibition are "overstating the case" just as much.

  • Tony||

    Were his admissions in the interview a carefully timed trial balloon, or did he Joe Biden himself? I agree that he's too cautious on this issue (as he was with gay marriage). I doubt he has much to lose by actually leading on drug reform.

  • CE||

    Old people vote, and they're scared of drugs. Luckily for Obama, he doesn't face any more elections.

  • Rhino||

    Opportunity cost. Old people have more to lose in Medicare and social security kickbacks to vot against dems over mrijuana.

  • LibertarianX||

    I think this fool in the whitehouse has proven he will say whatever he believes to be popular, then do whatever he wants. He doesn't have the power to legalize anything, and he doesn't have the testicular fortitude to make the case for the change.

  • dantheserene||

    If DOJ took pot down to at most schedule III, with IV being accurate or even V, prohibition would pretty much end.
    DOJ works for the president.
    http://www.deadiversion.usdoj......index.html

  • StackOfCoins||

    Probably does not want to be remembered in the history books as the first black president who also made pot more accessible. Or something.

    I don't know really, Obama is a psycho.

  • Mr.Krinkle||

    He's backing down federal enforcement of marijuana laws. Which is the more likely reason?

    "Not standing in the way of states trying legalization is a big deal. It shows a somewhat open mind about the wisdom of the status quo and the practical effects of liberalization."
    He's open minded and wise!

    "58 percent of Americans now favor... legalization of cannabis..."
    He's learning to pick his battles.

    I really wish he would resign. At least Joe Biden's shenanigans are funny.

  • Will Nonya||

    A president Biden is something I hope we never get to "enjoy".

  • Will Nonya||

    "The Justice Department could have instructed federal prosecutors to go after marijuana possession and sales, to dramatize the president's stern opposition. Instead, it instructed them to let the states go their own way, focusing federal enforcement on preventing major drug trafficking and sales to minors."

    Instead they go after medical marijuana dispensaries which were in compliance with state law after stating that he would now do so.

  • gaoxiaen||

    *not- "now" would give your conclusion a considerably different meaning

  • Michael Hihn||

    The point on selective enforcement is valid, middle-class vs poor kids. In the mid-80s, I ran a successful schools tax revolt and candidate campaign. It was a middle-class suburb of Cleveland.

    At one public debate, a guy asked me, in a very stern voice, "What will you do to stop drug abuse by teenagers?"

    I was willing to take firm and immediate action the very next day. Would he join me. "I sure would."

    "Bring a camera. Meet me in the Jr. High parking lot after school. We'll have actual photos of kids sharing drugs. Can you meet me at 3:00 pm?"

    He left the room which, surprising to me, was largely laughing.

  • Robert||

    Wow, Michael Hihn, haven't seen you since Libernet-d, or maybe since the Liberty Northwest feed on Fidonet.

  • Michael Hihn||

    It was both, that was a LONG time ago, and your memory is better than mine (I'm 72).

    Read some links on your profile, especially on the Libertarian Party. But the Movement now seems just as hopeless. Remember "Never be anti-government; always be pro-liberty?" Today's crop does not seem to know the difference. And you understand the difference between governance and mere tribalism, though you might phrase it differently.

    I found your last name. It didn't ring a bell but your location did (NYC?) If you remember Jim Dexter (Utah), we still hang together in email -- still bitching and moaning about politics.

    What I call "generic libertarians" have been the majority in America for 30 years (WSPQ). But we've been promoting libertarianism instead of liberty, and paid a heavy price for tribal purity.

    I'll stop now.

  • SQRLSY One||

    Hoping for the VERY best we can expect of out slime of the kind we are looking at Emperor Oh-Butt-Head here, we can expect that we'll stop confiscating the cars, cash, and houses of the pot-smokers, so as to give it all to the cops... Instead, we will give all of the confiscated goodies to the anti-pot THERAPISTS instead! And that's the best we can hope for, out of Mr. Intergalactic Emperor here...

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    … An’ that’s all Ah’s gots ta say about that them THAR Bow-Wee Oh-Blow-me CRAP & shit, so all ye sophisticated egg-heads & what-not, ya’ll just go an’ TRY ta top THAT!

  • MSimon||

    Heroin prices have been plummeting. Do you suppose they are going to use the freed manpower to "fight" other drugs?

  • MSimon||

    Had the initiatives passed under George W. Bush, the enforcement policy would have been less indulgent.

    And yet Obama did more med pot raids (med pot polls better) than Bush.

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