To be clear, I have never simultaneously been in a room with Barack Obama, and marijuana. I have been in a room with Barack Obama on a number of occasions. I have been in a room with state-legal marijuana on a number of occasions. Never at the same time. Ever.
But POTUS and cannabis loom large in my life. More importantly, the President’s two terms have directly led to the current state of affairs with marijuana legalization.
I first met Barack Obama in 2003 after being invited to a fundraiser by one of his University of Chicago law students. Tickets were $20 each. Seriously.
Obama was running for U.S. Senate in Illinois, and the fundraiser was at a beautiful home in Chicago’s Gold Coast. We met. We talked. I passed out. Not from being so impressed with him that I fainted (though I was so impressed I seriously considered dropping out of law school to go volunteer for his campaign), but from drinking wine on a hot and humid day while wearing a suit. It was a great first impression to make on the future President of the United States of America.
I started by raising money for him with young professionals in Chicago, moved into healthcare policy committees, and decided to bite the bullet by taking a leave of absence from my job to help manage Jewish community outreach in Florida (see “The Great Schlep“).
Yada yada yada, Obama wins Florida in ’08 (you’re welcome, Barack).
Eight years later I am proud of many of his accomplishments, and have strongly disagreed with some of his policy decisions and actions.
Still, my biggest disappointment in President Obama has been his inaction on pot. He has nibbled around the edges with criminal justice reform, and it is well documented (admitted in his own biography) that he used marijuana and cocaine in his youth. But after seven years, thirty-four days, nine hours, eighteen minutes and counting, the President has made it clear that he will not be stepping into to the fray and using his Executive Power to reschedule or deschedule marijuana from the U.S. Controlled Substances Act. For background, marijuana is defined as a “Schedule 1” drug. This means it “has no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Marijuana, Heroin, Quaaludes. All Schedule 1.
Is it within the power of the Presidency to fix our backwards marijuana laws? And if yes, should he?
The answer to first question is clearly a “yes.” The U.S. Attorney General (who reports to the President, of course), “may by rule remove any drug or other substance from the schedules if he finds that the drug or other substance does not meet the requirements for inclusion in any schedule.” 21 U.S.C. 811(a)(2). The U.S. Congress also has the ability to change the Schedule 1 status of marijuana through legislation – and it actually could happen in the coming years despite our dysfunctional legislative branch.
The question of whether POTUS should reschedule marijuana to a less-restrictive Schedule or remove it altogether is a much more difficult question – one that is more political science than Neil deGrasse Tyson science.
Government executives make decisions based on prioritizing issues while considering available political capital. Obama can’t do everything he wants on every issue he cares about: he has to choose. He chose to fight for the expansion of healthcare coverage, he chose to invest in passing the most sweeping financial banking reform since the Great Depression, and he chose to shift our international focus away from military intervention and towards peacekeeping multilateralism. He decided not to push for single-payer healthcare, he didn’t break up the largest banks, and he didn’t solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
He did not try to reschedule marijuana.
His overall record has been mixed – and to me that is not good enough. On the bright side, his administration has generally allowed Colorado and Washington to play out the recreational marijuana experiment (with Oregon and Alaska right behind). That said, his U.S. Treasury guidance has been halfhearted for banks considering whether to maintain cannabis business accounts, and his DEA enforcement has been overly aggressive against some using and growing medical cannabis. Research projects continue to face unnecessary bureaucratic delays, Obama has done little to change federal mandatory minimum sentences that disproportionately imprison minorities with petty marijuana convictions. On the whole, marijuana policy reform has progressed in spite of, not because of, Barack Obama.