When Eric Holder was the United States Attorney General, he did not support changing marijuana’s status as a Schedule 1 controlled substance. In fact, Eric Holder went before Congress to testify in direct opposition to such a move. So needless to say, after Eric Holder stepped down and started talking about the need to reform marijuana laws in America, I was more than a bit taken back. Wouldn’t it have been nice if he felt that way when he could actually do something about it!?
In a somewhat similar move President Barack Obama came out this week signaling that he things the time is right to start moving towards reforming federal marijuana laws. Obama had the following to say in an interview that first appeared in Rolling Stone:
“If you survey the American people, including Trump voters, they’re…in favor, in large numbers, of decriminalizing marijuana… 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… 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… It is untenable over the long term for the Justice Department or the DEA to be enforcing a patchwork of laws, where something that’s legal in one state could get you a 20-year prison sentence in another. So this is a debate that is now ripe, much in the same way that we ended up making progress on same-sex marriage.”
As Tom Angell from the Marijuana Majority pointed out, the comments about marijuana reform shortly before leaving office are reminiscent of what Bill Clinton did on his way out. Also per Rolling Stone:
“I think that most small amounts of marijuana have been decriminalized in some places, and should be.”
Tom himself had the following to say about President Obama’s comments:
“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. 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. 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. Now, more than ever, it’s time for President Obama to walk the walk in addition to talking the talk.”
I have stated it before and I’ll state it again, I don’t fault President Obama for not being able to make significant changes to marijuana policy at the federal level. It’s not an easy task, as John Hudak from Brookings pointed out (check out this video, starting around the 6:30 mark). However, I do fault Obama for not doing more to initiate the process. If the bureaucratic hoops proved ultimately too much to get past, I could live with that. But to see the Obama Administration not only refuse to initiate lasting marijuana reforms, but to go out of its way to oppose such proposals when they came up in Congress is very lame.
I couldn’t agree more with Tom. President Obama had plenty of time while in the White House to make meaningful strides towards achieving the reforms he described this week. The debate is not all of a sudden ripe just because of the last election. The debate has been ripe for a long time. For Barack Obama’s ENTIRE second term as President a majority of Americans have supported the end of federal prohibition according to Gallup. How many other public policy issues have that level of support? The debate has been beyond ripe for years. It’s great that ‘Obama the private citizen’ will advocate for reform, but it would have been better to see ‘Obama the President’ do more while he had the chance.