Is Obama's Medical Marijuana Reversal 'Shocking'?


In a new Rolling Stone piece, Tim Dickinson rehearses Barack Obama's reversal on medical marijuana, covering much of the same ground that I did in my October cover story for Reason (which also discusses other disappointing aspects of Obama's drug policies). It's a good summary, featuring outraged quotes from reformers and making the point that Obama, despite his talk of deferring to state law, is arguably worse on this issue than his predecessor. But I think Dickinson makes too much of an anti-marijuana document produced by the Drug Enforcement Administration:

In January 2011, weeks after [Bush administration holdover Michele] Leonhart was confirmed [as head of the DEA], her agency updated a paper called "The DEA Position on Marijuana." With subject headings like THE FALLACY OF MARIJUANA FOR MEDICINAL USE and SMOKED MARIJUANA IS NOT MEDICINE, the paper simply regurgitated the Bush administration's ideological stance, in an attempt to walk back the Ogden memo. Sounding like Glenn Beck, the DEA even blamed "George Soros" and "a few billionaires, not broad grassroots support" for sustaining the medical-marijuana movement—even though polls show that 70 percent of Americans approve of medical pot.

Almost immediately, federal prosecutors went on the attack. Their first target: the city of Oakland, where local officials had moved to raise millions in taxes by licensing high-tech indoor facilities for growing medical marijuana. A month after the DEA issued its hard-line position, U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag warned the city that the feds were weighing "criminal prosecution" against the proposed pot operations. Abandoning the Ogden memo's protections for state-sanctioned "caregivers," Haag effectively re-declared war on medical pot. "We will enforce the Controlled Substances Act vigorously against individuals and organizations that participate in unlawful manufacturing and distribution activity involving marijuana," she wrote, "even if such activities are permitted under state law."

This juxtaposition suggests the U.S. attorneys were following the DEA's lead, which seems unlikely. In any case, the DEA's position on medical marijuana has never really changed. The July 2010 version of this document, which appeared half a year before the U.S. attorneys' crackdown, is essentially the same as the current version, which (as Dickinson suggests) is essentially the same as the version produced during the Bush administration. Leonhart and her underlings were never on board with the forbearance promised by Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, and neither were the federal prosecutors who are going after growers and dispensaries now. Obama would have had to make an effort to change the status quo, and he clearly didn't think it was worth it.

Was this failure "shocking," as the subhead over Dickinson's story says? That depends on your perspective. When my article on Obama's drug policies came out, Jeralyn at Talk Left had this reaction:

Jacob Sullum has the October cover story at Reason on President Obama: Bummer: Barack Obama Turns Out to Be Just Another Drug Warrior." As if anyone should be surprised.

I'm not. I've been writing since 2007 that he would do little to temper the War on Drugs. I would have called the article "Bummer: Barack Obama Is Still A Drug Warrior."

As I note in my Reason piece, there were indeed warning signs before Obama was elected. But many reformers were genuinely surprised that, with the exception of crack sentences, he turned out to be no better than Bush and in some ways worse. With medical marijuana especially, the political risks of a bit more tolerance seemed small, and there was even a sound conservative/constitutionalist argument for letting states make their own decisions. Obama seems to assume that supporters who care about this issue and other progressive causes he has betrayed (the anti-war movement and civil liberties, for instance) have nowhere else to go, but they could just stay home.

The Drug War Chronicle notes that Delaware has suspended its medical marijuana program in response to federal threats.