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What Did President Obama’s Comments On Marijuana Legalization Mean?

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president barack obama marijuana interview 20/20 barbara waltersAre Media Outlets Missing What President Obama Really Said About Marijuana?

Barbara Walters interview with President Obama aired last Friday and marijuana legalization was one of the topics covered.  Reactions have varied from the hopeful to the pessimistic since a preview of the interview and a partial transcript were released.  Now that the interview has been aired, where do the marijuana legalization measures in Colorado and Washington stand with the federal government?  Different people took different things away from the interview.  Just as I have blogged previously, I don’t think that President Obama said anything very substantial and feel that is is upon us, the civil libertarian and cannabis law reform communities, to lead on this issue, because the President simply isn’t.

Andrew Sullivan was encouraged by President Obama’s statements to Barbara Walters, while Matt Yglesias thought that his comments were “meaningless.”  The folks at Reason were skeptical that the President’s statements really indicated any new policy as he didn’t signal a change towards targeting marijuana providers and Alex Seitz-Wald, writing for Salon, stated that “history suggests reformers should be wary.”

A lot of people I spoke with over the past couple of days, seemed to be very influenced by headlines like, “Marijuana Not High Obama Priority,” “Obama lets the states decide on marijuana” and “Obama: Feds shouldn’t target recreational pot users in Colorado, Washington,” as these headlines all imply that the Obama Justice Department will allow states to implement their own marijuana laws.  Unfortunately, the Presidents comments did not signal that his administration will adhere to the will of the voters in Washington and Colorado, he simply stated that going after recreational users will not be a priority of the federal government, but that has never been a priority of the federal government, so I tend to agree with Matt Yglesias that his statements regarding recreational consumers were pretty meaningless.  I agree with The Denver Post’sheadline, “Obama’s stance on marijuana still not clear.”

The only aspects about his comments that weren’t really meaningless fluff were his statements about how it is time to have a conversation about legalization and that is is upon Congress to pass laws and the Executive Branch to enforce laws.  These statements make it clear to me that President Obama is completely unwilling to be a true leader marijuana law reform.  We, anyone concerned about drug laws, states’ rights or civil liberties, must lead on this issue.  If we force Congress to act, then the President will follow us and finally listen to the will of the people and allow states to operate as laboratories of democracy as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandies once called for.  Fortunately for us, Senator Patrick Leahy, who has stated his intention of holding hearings on the issue, Rand Paul and several House members have provided us an opening to take the lead.

One one hand, I sympathize with President Obama’s predicament and understand his willingness to lead on drug law reform issues.  He has so many issues on his plate, including the fiscal cliff negotiations, health care, immigration policy, foreign policy and gun control, that marijuana legalization cannot be his top priority.  His Justice Department is staffed with prosecutors who have spent their careers prosecuting people for marijuana, they aren’t going to be hopping on the legalization bandwagon any time soon.  Vice-President Joe Biden has been a Drug War warrior his entire political career as well, so he probably isn’t advising the President to allow states to implement their own cannabis laws.  Finally, President Obama’s historical significance as the first African American to occupy the White House likely weighs upon him and he is likely sensitive as being seen as “pro-pot” or “soft on drugs.”

On the other hand, I don’t understand President Obama’s reluctance to be more of a leader on this issue.  Marijuana legalization is favored by a majority of voters in many polls and a very strong majority of voterswant the federal government to allow states to implement their own cannabis laws.  Both of the legalization states sent their electoral votes to President Obama and most of his core constituencies  including young people and liberals, overwhelmingly support ending cannabis prohibition.  Also, prior to running for the presidency, Barack Obama is on record supporting marijuana decriminalization and examining the failed Drug War.  Now that he doesn’t have to worry about re-election, there isn’t a better time for President Obama to have our nation thoroughly evaluate the Drug War, particularly the War on Marijuana. And finally, the President has been provided political cover by Republican Senator Rand Paul and the influential conservative magazine, the National Review.  If Obama were given to much grief about allowing states to implement their own marijuana laws, he could always pin the idea on the conservative junior senator from Kentucky and on the conservative disciples of William F. Buckley, Jr. (the founder of the National Review.)

Regardless of how the Obama Administration ultimately responds to Colorado and Washington or whether we help usher a bill through Congress that allows states to implement their own cannabis laws without a threat of federal interference, or not, marijuana legalization is not going away.  President Obama and Congress cannot stop more states from ending cannabis prohibition in 2014, 2016 and beyond.  The federal government simply doesn’t have the resources to stop our movement.  As more and more people understand that ending cannabis prohibition will allow law enforcement resources to be better prioritized to combat serious and violent crime, while generating revenue and creating jobs, the polls will continue to move in our favor.  As the polls continue to move in our favor, so will elected officials all across the country, and just as Alcohol Prohibition went the way of the dodo bird, so will cannabis prohibition.

Republished with special permission from the National Cannabis Coalition

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About Author

Anthony Johnson is the director of New Approach Oregon, the PAC responsible for Measure 91, that ended cannabis prohibition for all Oregon adults in 2014. In addition to helping organize the International Cannabis Business Conference & the Oregon Medical Marijuana Business Conference, he also serves as a Board Member of the National Cannabis Coalition, working to legalize cannabis across the country and Show-Me Cannabis Regulation, an organization specifically working to end cannabis prohibition in Missouri. As President of the University of Missouri Law School ACLU Chapter, Anthony co-authored the measures that legalized medical cannabis possession and decriminalized personal possession for all adults within the city limits of Columbia, Missouri, in 2004. Following law school, Anthony practiced criminal defense for two years before working full time in the political field to help improve and protect civil liberties. You can follow Anthony on Twitter and also friend him on Facebook by following the links below as he posts mostly about civil liberties and politics with dashes of sports, music, movies and whatnot.