President Obama said that the use of pot should be handled as a public-health issue just like tobacco or alcohol and referred to current state and federal laws regarding the drug “untenable,” as per an “exit interview” with Rolling Stone magazine.
“Look, I’ve been very clear about my belief that we should try to discourage substance abuse,” Obama said. “And I am not somebody who believes that legalization is a panacea. But 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.”
Obama made similar comments in a 2014 interview with the New Yorker magazine, saying that pot was not as dangerous as alcohol “in terms of its impact on the individual consumer.” Obama recently told TV host Bill Maher, “I think we’re going to have to have a more serious conversation about how we are treating marijuana and our drug laws generally.”
As per the Rolling Stone interview, Obama said that changing federal marijuana laws is not something the president can do alone. “Typically how these classifications are changed are not done by presidential edict,” he said, “but are done either legislatively or through the DEA. 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.”
The Drug Enforcement Administration rejected a petition recently to soften federal restrictions on pot, citing marijuana’s lack of “accepted medical use” and its “high potential for abuse.” Although congress can solve the conflict between state and federal marijuana laws by amending the federal Controlled Substances Act; it does not want to.
Advocates for cannabis legalization are furious at what they say is Obama’s lack of willingness to use his power to advocate for their cause. “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,” stated Tom Angell of the pro-legalization group Marijuana Majority. “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.”
Almost everyone agrees on both sides of the legalization debate that personal pot use should be treated mainly as a public-health issue. The nation’s leading anti-legalization group, Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), said that it “seeks to establish a rational policy” for cannabis use and possession that “no longer relies only on the criminal justice system to address people whose only crime is smoking or possessing a small amount of marijuana.”
However, there is disagreement about how a “rational policy” would look. On one hand; SAM advocates for legalization of cannabis use, but not commercial legalization. On the other hand; groups such as the Marijuana Policy Project are fighting for commercial marketplaces where it is completely legal to buy, sell and consume pot.
Obama hesitated during his second term on pushing for one approach or the other. His Justice Department made policy to allow states to legalize cannabis as they wanted. He did not; however, make an effort to change the federal prohibition on cannabis that complicates any effort to create a legal nationwide cannabis industry.
Pro-legalization advocates are concerned that the recent Justice Department policy of noninterference on marijuana legalization may be reversed by an incoming Trump administration full of critics of legalization. Trump himself has said that the matter should be left up to the states.
In the Rolling Stone interview, Obama hinted that he may be more vocal on the issue once he leaves office. “I will have the opportunity as a private citizen to describe where I think we need to go” on marijuana, he said.