On the topic of the legalization of recreational cannabis use in Washington and Colorado, Obama told Barbara Walters that “[w]e’ve got bigger fish to fry.” Specifically, the President told Walters “[i]t would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined that [cannabis is] legal.”
Now, we’ve heard these lines before from the White House and its U.S. Prosecutors regarding medical cannabis. Specifically, the famous Ogden memo, authored by 2009 Deputy Attorney General David Ogden, stipulated that the Feds wouldn’t go after medical cannabis users or distributors that were in compliance with state law; that enforcement of Federal law against legitimate medical cannabis users and distributors was a low priority. Then, in 2011, under the direction of current Attorney General Eric Holder, the Feds began to override the Ogden memo. Despite the MMJ industry’s compliance with various state laws, the Feds began to crack down on cannabis without rhyme or reason, with a renewed vigor that was extremely unpopular with the general public. As a result, we now wonder: is Obama totally full of it regarding I-502 and Amendment 64? Or will the Feds ultimately cool their heels and really respect states’ rights this time? The answers to those questions can only be found in a rough translation of Obama’s comments made earlier today.
The Huffington Post wrote a great article that parses out Obama’s analysis of how the Feds plan to treat Washington and Colorado. First, the Huff-Post noted that “[Obama] responded in a serious and substantive tone, which contrasted with the jokingly dismissive ways in which he answered questions about marijuana legalization just a few years ago.” The very fact that the President is taking cannabis seriously is a huge social victory. He may not have said much on legalization, but he’s finally beginning to view it as a legitimate topic of discussion. Second, at the very least, Obama has made the smart political decision to treat recreational use the same as medical use when it comes to enforcement. He likely couldn’t afford to treat it any other way since the people of Washington and Colorado spoke so loudly in favor of recreational use. Third, the Huff-Post points out that:
“Obama told Walters he does not – ‘at this point’ — support widespread legalization of marijuana. The caveat ‘at this point’ sounds a lot like how he responded to questions about legalizing gay marriage – until he finally decided it was time to publicly support it. Obama cited shifting public opinion and essentially made clear that this is not an issue on which he wants to provide leadership so long as public opinion is split and Congress unlikely to do anything constructive.”
Anyone who’s followed Obama knows that when he was in state government in Illinois, he supported the decriminalization of cannabis. With cannabis, Obama is playing a classic political card where, despite his looking like a social justice hero, he cannot do any meaningful leaning towards decriminalization unless and until the cronies in Congress give the ultimate go-ahead. As a result, even though this particular comment seems discouraging, if you read between the lines, Obama seems to be treating cannabis almost the same as gay marriage, as a social taboo that he inevitably supported.
The fourth and, by far, most valuable comment made by Obama was that the nation needs “to have … a conversation” about how we deal with cannabis going forward. The President has never uttered these words, not even about medical use. The fact that the President is even referring to the conflicts between state and Federal law in the context of resolution and harmony, rather than (as Huff-Post puts it) a directive where “federal marijuana prohibition trumps all” is a massive social and political victory for the cannabis industry. Tellingly, Huff-Post identifies a major question—who will participate in this national conversation? Surely, if the talking is left to the DEA or FBI, we’ll be stuck in arbitrary prohibition hell forever. Nonetheless, the letter sent last week by Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, lends major hope and credibility to the idea of serious resolution for Washington and Colorado:
“What assurance can and will the administration give to state officials involved in the licensing of marijuana retailers that they will not face Federal criminal penalties for carrying out duties assigned to them under state law? (Leahy asked) … options exist to resolve the differences between federal and state law in this area and end the uncertainty that residents of Colorado and Washington now face.”
While the Justice Department continues to review its options on how it will handle Washington and Colorado, one thing is certain, times have changed and so has the conversation with the Federal government regarding the treatment of cannabis. Finally, those in power seem to be coming to their senses and their reefer madness appears to be subsiding. Thankfully so, as not just one but two states blaze the trail to end cannabis prohibition.