On the campaign trail in 2007, Barack Obama was asked, when he smoked marijuana as a younger man, if he inhaled—a reference to former President Bill Clinton‘s famous line about smoking marijuana but refraining from inhaling.
“The point was to inhale,” said Obama, then a U.S. senator, who would be president. “That was the point.”
Two presidential terms later, it’s clear that Obama presided over what is likely the most consequential period in this history of American policy on pot since the drug was first made illegal. Twenty-four states now allow medical marijuana and a handful have gone all the way to full legalization for recreational use.
Over the past eight years, public attitudes toward marijuana use have undergone a sea change. According to an October 2015 Gallup poll, 58 percent of Americans believe recreational use should be legal. A 2014 CNN/ORC survey found that nearly nine out of 10 respondents approve of medical cannabis.
To get a sense of how President Obama has helped or hampered the cause of marijuana policy reform, the Daily Dot spoke with Tom Angell, the chairman of the drug policy reform organization Marijuana Majority. Angell has spent over a decade fighting laws criminalizing marijuana cultivation, sale, and use.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Daily Dot: All in all, what’s your assessment on Obama’s legacy on marijuana?
Tom Angell: The Obama presidency has been a mixed bag for marijuana. In many ways, he’s been the best president we’ve ever had on marijuana. However, that’s an extremely low bar. He’s also been very disappointing in many ways.
In the first term of the Obama administration, federal officials shuttered more legal medical marijuana dispensaries than were closed down in two terms of the George W. Bush administration. A lot of patients lost their access to safe, legal medicine because the president was unwilling to tell the Justice Department to knock it off and to follow through with his campaign pledges. He always said it was a decision for the states. But, during the first term, U.S. attorneys in a number of states [were] sending threat letters to property owners, to business owners, even to state legislators and governors who were considering simply enacting new medical marijuana policies.
Do you have a sense of how much of that was coming from the administration versus how much of it was the initiative of those individual U.S. attorneys, with the Obama administration making a decision to take a hands-off policy?
I don’t think that the president was sitting in the Oval Office with [former Attorney General] Eric Holder rubbing his fingers together mischievously saying, “Let’s get those medical marijuana people.” I think it was more a situation where federal drug war bureaucrats in the Department of Justice made the calculation that, if they went ahead with this, the president wasn’t going to tell them to stop. Unfortunately, that was a correct calculation—at least as far as the first term went.
That said, the second term has been much better. After marijuana legalization passed in Colorado with more votes than the president’s own reelection effort got [in the state], things changed. It’s become much clearer that this is a mainstream issue supported by a growing majority of voters. The political dynamics surrounding the issue have changed. The president, along with members of Congress and other politicians, are starting to see that this is a winning issue.
During Obama’s second term, it seems like there wasn’t that same sort of action on the part of the Justice Department to go after all of these dispensaries.
To be fair, there are still a couple of ongoing cases … but we haven’t really seen any new coordinated crackdowns. That’s probably because of the August 2013 memo from the Justice Department following legalization in Colorado and Washington. That basically said federal prosecutors should give the states room to implement those laws without federal interference.
Of course, there is some criticism that the memo leaves a little bit of wiggle room—that it’s not as clear and decisive as we would like it to be. It’s also just a memo; it’s not an actual change in the federal drug statutes, which the president hasn’t pushed for. There’s a lot of room for improvement, but that memo, and in general during the president’s second term, he has given states a lot of leeway to go ahead and implement legalization, which has allowed our movement to show the world that it works, that it will do what we’ve been saying it will do for years and years. Now we’re actually able to show that, thanks in large part the Obama administration calling off the dogs an letting us go ahead.
There was a lot of uncertainty in the first term about what actually is the policy here. Do they respect state laws or do they not? There’s always this sort of over-arching threat of federal law is what it is, and it could be enforced at any time.
That’s still the case, even in the second term. Federal law hasn’t changed. The Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged. The DEA could come in, federal prosecutors could file cases, but it seems like somewhere over the course of the two terms, the Department of Justice has gotten the message from the White House to back off and let these states move ahead.
Most of Obama’s legacy on this has been though Executive Branch policy, but the actual underlying legislation really hasn’t changed. Is it a disappointment that you’re not seeing the administration trying to push these priorities through Congress?
Recognizing that it’s very hard to get anything through Congress these days and, with the current makeup of Congress, the president’s support for any specific legislative change is not necessarily going to be well-received on the Hill, it sure would be nice for him to say, very clearly, the federal law should be changed. …Whether or not that can actually happen in this Congress, I think he should say it.
It’s worth noting that we have made a number of gains through Congress in the past few years—mostly through amendments to appropriations bills, such as the one that has been passed two fiscal years in a row now, which prevents the Department of Justice from spending money to interfere with state medical marijuana laws. To his credit, the president has signed those budget bills into law. Although, it’s worth noting that those were a couple of lines in several thousands page-long bills. I don’t think he made his decision on whether to sign or veto the bill based just on that. But he did sign it into law.
One good thing the administration did was, at one point, was there was an appropriations bill that was moving through the House that contained language purporting to prevent Washington, D.C., from moving forward with its own local marijuana laws. The White House put out a statement of administration policy on that bill specifically singling out the piece about interfering with D.C.’s marijuana laws. They very strongly criticized it. That was kind of surprising to see at the time that they singled that out. But it was good.
Have there been any other areas of friction between the administration and drug-reform activists on marijuana?
One thing that I continue to be disappointed about by this administration … is the president’s refusal to use his authority to reclassify marijuana under federal law. It’s currently a Schedule I substance—that’s supposed to be reserved for drugs with no medical value, which is an absurd position given that nearly half the states in the country have medical marijuana laws. Major medical groups are on board, and voters overwhelmingly support it, and the science is there. There’s absolutely no reason it should remain in Schedule I.
One thing that’s been particularly infuriating is that, every time the president is asked about marijuana’s status under the Controlled Substances Act, he repeatedly attempts to pass the buck to Congress. He says that this is a job for Congress, we don’t do that administratively. However, the Controlled Substances Act very clearly gives the president the authority to reclassify drugs, including marijuana. While it’s true that Congress could pass a law rescheduling marijuana, it’s also true that the president has ignored his own power to do so administratively, without any further act of Congress.
What would be the practical effects of rescheduling marijuana?
Rescheduling will not change marijuana’s criminal status. The criminal penalties would still be there. It wouldn’t affect that. It’s not a silver bullet. But it would make scientific research slightly easier. If you move down to Schedule III or lower … it would solve some of the tax problems that state legal marijuana businesses have been encountering.
It would also solve the strange issue that’s arisen recently where the United States Postal Service is threatening newspapers who attempt to mail publications containing advertisements for marijuana, citing a statue that only references Schedule I drugs in those threats. It would [also] protect federal employees from a Reagan-era executive order, which defines illegal drugs as Schedule I and Schedule II drugs.
But one of the most important things is the symbolic message it would send. For the federal government to finally official recognize that marijuana does have medical value, would give a strong boost to efforts to pass medical marijuana laws in the more than half the states in the country that don’t yet have those policies. It would also send a message to international leaders who are considering marijuana reforms in their own nations, but are still somewhat weary of the Unites States interfering and telling them not to.
Among the leading presidential candidates, do you see any significant gap between them on marijuana policy?
My organization, Marijuana Majority, is a 501c3 and, just to be clear, we don’t support or oppose any candidates for public office. But that said, we’re in a situation right now, for the first time in history, where every major candidate in the two major parties has pledged to respect state marijuana laws—not just limited to medical marijuana, but full legalization. That’s awesome. It’s a very strong position for us to be in. It really sends a message that, unless there’s some big reversal by the person who ends up being the next occupant of the Oval Office, our gains are not going to be reversed, they’re only going to be built on in the next administration.
There were candidates who were in the race, like [New Jersey Gov.] Chris Christie and [Sen.] Marco Rubio who had taken the opposite position and said that federal law should be enforced, even in states where marijuana is legal. Now, all the candidates respect state laws.
Again, we don’t endorse or oppose candidates, so I’m not going to single anyone out, but there’s one candidate who personally supports legalization and said, when asked in a debate if he would vote for a ballot initiative, indicated he would. The other candidates have either said they personally oppose legalization or they’re not really sure and need more research. But even in having those positions, [they] have still said, “let the states decide,” and aren’t sure about it.
That’s a huge shift from eight years ago.
Eight years ago, our movement had to physically chase down the candidates in New Hampshire and repeatedly harass them just in order to generate pledges to respect state medical marijuana laws. All the Democratic candidates did end up coming around to that position. I think Obama actually was the last one who did. That’s a world of difference from where we are right now.
We no longer have to chase them down. We don’t even have to do that with full legalization. Candidates are being asked about that by the mainstream media in official debates. This is now a mainstream issue that’s surely at the forefront of American politics. The candidates are beginning to see that it’s a winning issue and not this dangerous third rail of politics.