3 Reasons Obama Should End the Federal Crackdown on Medical Marijuana

It's time for the president to keep his word.


Despite the best public relations efforts of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the Center for American Progress, and Rolling Stone magazine, there's simply no way for President Barack Obama to cast his drug war record as anything other than what it is: A string of broken promises punctuated by condescension and mistruth.

In the course of three years, Obama has graduated from breaking his promise to end medical marijuana raids, to claiming he didn't promise to end medical marijuana raids, to claiming that he's upheld the promise that he didn't make. The only thing he's done consistently is give the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Internal Revenue Service, and the U.S. Attorneys Office carte blanche to continue George W. Bush-era crackdowns on local medical marijuana dispensaries. 

With election day nearing, Obama is facing more heat than ever before. The drug law reformers who hesitantly supported him in 2008 are furious. Coverage of his broken promise has spread from the alternative press to TIME magazine and the financial reporting agency Reuters. His own party is "disappointed." If those aren't enough reasons for Obama to make good on one of the promises that got him elected, here are three more. 

3.) Obama has the authority to redirect federal law enforcement priorities.

The Obama administration's favorite excuse for cracking down on the medical marijuana industry is that it has no choice but to keep cracking down. "I can't nullify congressional law," Obama told Rolling Stone. "Federal law is federal law," Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske told the Center for American Progress' Neera Tanden.

And yet, as Chris Weigant recently pointed out, Obama has plenty of discretion when it comes to enforcing federal law. The Department of Justice isn't defending the Defense of Marriage Act, didn't prosecute the New Black Panthers in Philadelphia, and is not going after former Bush administration officials for torture.

But an even better example is Obama's use of executive discretion on immigration policy. In June 2011, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director John Morton issued a memorandum titled, "Exercising Prosecutorial Discretion Consistent with the Civil Immigration Enforcement Priorities of the Agency for the Apprehension, Detention, and Removal of Aliens."

Here's anti-immigration lawmaker Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) describing that ICE memo at National Review Online: "The memos tell agency officials when to exercise 'prosecutorial discretion,' such as when to defer the removal of immigrants; when not to stop, question, arrest, or detain an immigrant; and when to dismiss a removal proceeding. The directives also tell officials not to seek to remove illegal immigrants who have been present illegally for many years."

While ICE hasn't followed that memo to the letter—and in fact still rips families apart on a regular basis—it has made extra-legal efforts to reduce deportation numbers, which is a testament to Obama's ability to ignore federal law when he feels like it.

2.) Democrats want him to stop cracking down on medical marijuana.

In the last two weeks, some of the biggest names in Democratic Party politics have chided Obama for his crackdown on medical marijuana. It started with Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) skewering the president in an interview with The Hill on April 27.

"It's unfair and will hurt innocent people," Frank said. "I think it's bad politics and bad policy. I'm very disappointed. I think it's a grave mistake." Frank also told The Hill that he'd met with Obama personally to express his disappointment.

A week later, House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) released a letter condemning raids of medical marijuana dispensaries in California. "I have strong concerns about the recent actions by the federal government that threaten the safe access of medicinal marijuana to alleviate the suffering of patients in California, and undermine a policy that has been in place under which the federal government did not pursue individuals whose actions complied with state laws providing for medicinal marijuana."

And then this week, a bipartisan group of 163 House members—composed largely of Democrats—pushed for an amendment to the DOJ's 2013 budget that would have defunded the Obama administration's raids on medical marijuana in states where it's legal. "None of the funds made available in this Act to the Department of Justice may be used, with respect to the States of Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington, to prevent such States from implementing their own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana," the amendment, which failed, read.

To quote comic Bill Engvall: "There's your sign."

1.) Obama said he would stop the federal crackown on medical marijuana.

One thing incumbents have that challengers generally don't is a list of promises kept. You can't say it often enough: Obama promised to do the drug war differently, but hasn't. 

In 2008, Obama said he believed the "basic concept of using medical marijuana for the same purposes and with the same controls as other drugs." He also said he was "not going to be using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws."

Going back even further, to 2004, he said, "The war on drugs has been an utter failure. We need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws. We need to rethink how we're operating the drug war."

As Jacob Sullum wrote last year, "Obama's reversal on this issue is hard to reconcile with his avowed concerns about the drug war's disproportionate impact on minorities." It's also hard to reconcile with his own youthful pot smoking. "A misdemeanor marijuana conviction could have been a life-changing event for Obama, interrupting his education, impairing his job prospects, and derailing his political career before it began." 

It's also notable that unlike ObamaCare, various economic stimuli, unconstitutional recess appointments, and the no-fly zone in Libya, ending the crackdown on medical marijuana requires Obama to do absolutely nothing. He simply has to call off the U.S. Attorneys Office and the DEA—much the way he's called off ICE. Considering that Obama won office in part thanks to his drug reform promises, it's truly a mystery why he hasn't kept his word. 

Mike Riggs is an associate editor at Reason magazine. Follow him on Twitter