Blunt talk: Obama high on drug reform, but will he act?

By David Sirota , written on January 20, 2014

From The News Desk

Buried in the New Yorker's massive new profile of President Obama is a huge announcement that appears to reverse the administration's take on drug policy. Yes, that's right -- the president himself has endorsed marijuana legalization.

"It's important for it to go forward," the president told the New Yorker's David Remnick in a discussion of Colorado and Washington State's voter-approved initiatives legalizing cannabis for recreational use.

The most newsworthy aspects of this statement are what it contradicts, what it confirms, what it means politically, and what it does not include.

Obama contradicts his drug warriors and confirms the alcohol-marijuana connection

In terms of what Obama's statement contradicts, recall that only a few years ago, the same Obama who today says legalization is a serious criminal justice cause, simply laughed off a question about the whole issue. A little later, Obama's Justice Department started threatening to crack down on states that legalized marijuana merely for medicinal purposes. In 2012, Obama publicly defended that crackdown, and reiterated that he opposes legalization "at this point." Then in 2013, after voters in Colorado and Washington backed state laws to legalize weed, Obama's drug czar repeatedly dismissed calls to support the effort. Meanwhile, the White House recently responded to a petition about letting states legalize marijuana by pledging to continue enforcing prohibition.

In explaining his sudden reversal to the New Yorker, Obama didn't go as far as the Bush drug czar's office in claiming that cannabis is "the safest thing in the world." But he did appear to undermine the federal government's prohibitionist message by specifically arguing that marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol, a drug that is already legal. Here's the key passage in the New Yorker profile:

'As has been well documented, I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life. I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.'

Is it less dangerous? I asked.

Less dangerous, he said, 'in terms of its impact on the individual consumer.' As Pando reported earlier this month, Obama's alcohol-marijuana comparison was the key message behind the successful campaign for Colorado's "Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act." That campaign was predicated on decades of medical and social science research proving that marijuana is less toxic and less dangerous than alcohol. Obama's statement represents White House confirmation that all that research should -- finally -- inform America's drug policy.

A pushback against Democratic Party drug warriors

The timing of Obama's marijuana comments is particularly significant, as it comes just after two Democratic governors lashed out at legalization efforts.

In Colorado, for instance, Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) slammed his state's voters for legalizing marijuana and promised to regulate marijuana more punitively than alcohol. Similarly, in New Hampshire, Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) pledged to veto a marijuana legalization bill that passed the New Hampshire House.

In both cases, the alcohol-marijuana hypocrisy that Obama referenced was on display. Just as the two high-profile Democratic governors were criticizing marijuana as unhealthy, they were simultaneously promoting consumption of the far-more-dangerous alcohol (Hickenlooper, a beer mogul, hosted a party for his state's alcohol industry, while Hassan was promoting vodka consumption).

In the context of those controversies, Obama's statement, and his decision to specifically cite the alcohol-marijuana connection, looks like a serendipitously timed attempt to push drug warriors in his own party to join the majority of America in support of legalization.

What Obama didn't say

That said, Obama still seems intent on trying to pretend he's just an innocent bystander to -- rather than an active participant in -- the debate about the drug war. Indeed, while his comments are certainly unprecedented for a sitting president and thus hugely significant, he has a track record of refusing to back rhetoric with action.

For example, he has in the past allowed his own Drug Enforcement Agency to engage in marijuana raids that ran counter to his earlier directives. Even more important, CNN reports that despite Obama's statements today, the White House says "Obama doesn’t support changing (the) status" of marijuana under federal narcotics law.

This gets to an open secret about the war on weed: Under the Controlled Substances Act, Obama's administration today already has the authority to reclassify marijuana, which would be a huge step toward a more sensible drug policy. Yet even as he now says he believes "it's important for (legalization) to go forward," his administration is still (at least right now) refusing to exercise that power. Instead, when pushed, he has pretended he doesn't have any power to do anything, even though he most certainly does.

Of course, Obama's fast-evolving position might ultimately precede a move toward explicit legalization at the federal level.

Maybe he doesn't sign an order instantly rescheduling the drug, but maybe he uses his clout to support an existing bipartisan bill in Congress that would explicitly cement states' rights to legalize cannabis on their own. Alternately, maybe he cites both a gubernatorial request for rescheduling and an administrative law judge's pro-rescheduling ruling to formally begin a rescheduling process.

The point is that there's still plenty of time in his presidency for him to turn what he told the New Yorker into legislative action. The real question is: does he want to?