President Obama Breaks His Silence on Marijuana Legalization: We’ve Got Bigger Fish to Fry Than Cannabis UsersDecember 14, 2012
Breaking his silence on the topic of marijuana legalization since two states approved ballot initiatives to regulate cannabis, President Barack Obama addressed the issue in an interview with Barbara Walters this week.
While the administration’s broader policy is still being developed, the president stated that arresting recreational users in these states would not be a priority.
“We’ve got bigger fish to fry. It would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined that it’s legal. – President Obama
The president also clarified that he personally is not in favor of leglization, but that it is a more complex issue than his own view on it:
“This is a tough problem, because Congress has not yet changed the law. I head up the executive branch; we’re supposed to be carrying out laws. And so what we’re going to need to have is a conversation about, how do you reconcile a federal law that still says marijuana is a federal offense and state laws that say that it’s legal?” – President Obama
One line stands out as particularly interesting, during his answer he says:
“What I think is, that at this point, in Washington and Colorado, you’ve seen the voters speak on this issue. – President Obama
This is a great start and an encouraging sign that the federal government doesn’t intend to ramp up its focus on individual users. Though considering it is extremely rare for the federal government to handle possession cases (only a few percent of annual arrests are conducted by the federal government), and that this is the same stance he took on medical cannabis before raiding more dispensaries than his predecessor, his administration’s broader policy will be the one to watch and according to his Attorney General Holder that pronouncement may come soon. Speaking yesterday in Boston, Attorney General Holder stated that:
“There is a tension between federal law and these state laws. I would expect the policy pronouncement that we’re going to make will be done relatively soon.” – Attorney General Eric Holder
UPDATE: Politico has now posted President Obama’s interview for viewing. Check it out below.
I have an op/ed today online at The Hill.com’s influential Congress blog (“Where lawmakers come to blog”).
Read an excerpt from it below:
Voters say ‘No’ to pot prohibition
Voters in Colorado and Washington made history on Election Day. For the first time ever, a majority of voters decided at the ballot box to abolish cannabis prohibition.
… Predictably, the federal government – which continues to define cannabis as equally dangerous to heroin – is not amused. According to various media reports, the Justice Department is in the process of reviewing the nascent state laws. Meanwhile, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has already affirmed that the agency’s “enforcement of the [federal] Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged.” That may be true. But in a matter of weeks, the local enforcement of marijuana laws in Colorado and Washington most definitely will change. And there is little that the federal government can do about it.
States are not mandated to criminalize marijuana or arrest adult cannabis consumers and now two states have elected not to. The federal government cannot compel them to do otherwise. State drug laws are not legally obligation to mirror the federal Controlled Substances Act and state law enforcement are not required to help the federal government enforce it. Yes, theoretically the Justice Department could choose to prosecute under federal law those individuals in Colorado and Washington who possess personal amounts of cannabis. But such a scenario is hardly plausible. Right now, the federal government lacks the manpower, political will, and public support to engage in such behavior. In fact, rather than triggering a federal backlash, it is far more likely that the passage of these two measures will be the impetus for the eventual dismantling of federal pot prohibition.
Like alcohol prohibition before it, the criminalization of cannabis is a failed federal policy that delegates the burden of enforcement to the state and local police. How did America’s ‘Nobel Experiment’ with alcohol prohibition come to an end? Simple. When a sufficient number of states – led by New York in 1923 – enacted legislation repealing the state’s alcohol prohibition laws. With state police and prosecutors no longer complying with the government’s wishes to enforce an unpopular law, federal politicians eventually had no choice but to abandon the policy altogether.
… On Election Day, voters in Colorado and Washington turned their backs on cannabis prohibition. They are the first to do so. But they will not be the last. Inevitably, when voters in the other 48 states see that the sky has not fallen, they too will demand their lawmakers follow suit. As more states lead the way, federal politicians will eventually have no choice but to follow.
Millions of voters will decide on Election Day in favor of ballot measures to legalize and regulate the use of cannabis by adults. Voters in three states — Colorado, Oregon, and Washington — will decide on statewide ballot measures to legalize the possession and distribution of cannabis for those over 21 years of age. Voters in three additional states — Arkansas, Massachusetts, and Montana — will decide on measures to allow for the therapeutic use of cannabis by patients with qualifying ailments. In Michigan, voters in four cities – totaling over a million people – will decide on municipal measures to legalize or depenalize the adult use of cannabis.
Ballot measures in Colorado, Massachusetts, and Washington remain favored among voters, according to the latest statewide polls.
Since 1996, 17 states have enacted legislation to allow for the limited possession of cannabis when a physician authorizes such use. In ten of those states, voters enacted medical cannabis legislation via the statewide initiative process. But to date, no statewide proposal to remove criminal and civil penalties for the broader, personal possession and use of marijuana by adults has succeeded at the ballot box. This reality is likely to change tomorrow.
A summary of this year’s more prominent statewide and local ballot measures appears below.
ARKANSAS: Voters will decide on Measure 5, The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act of 2012, which allows authorized patients to possess up to two and one-half ounces of cannabis for various qualifying medical conditions, including cancer, Crohn’s disease, fibromyalgia, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The measure also allows state regulators to establish not-for-profit facilities to produce and dispense cannabis to approved patients. Individual patients will also be permitted to privately cultivate limited amounts of cannabis (up to six flowering plants) if they reside further than five miles from a state-authorized dispensary.
COLORADO: Voters will decide on Amendment 64, which allows for the legal possession of up to one ounce of marijuana and/or the cultivation of up to six cannabis plants by those persons age 21 and over. Longer-term, the measure seeks to establish regulations governing the commercial production and distribution of marijuana by licensed retailers. Voters in the state approve of the measure by a margin of 50 percent to 44 percent, according to the latest Denver Post survey.
MASSACHUSETTS: Voters will decide on Question 3, which eliminates statewide criminal and civil penalties related to the possession and use of up to a 60-day supply of cannabis by qualified patients. It would also require the state to create and regulate up to 35 facilities to produce and dispense cannabis to approved patients. Individual patients will also be permitted to privately cultivate limited amounts of cannabis if they are unable to access a state-authorized dispensary. Voters in the state approve the measure by a margin of 55 percent to 36 percent, according to the latest Suffolk University poll.
MICHIGAN: Voters in four cities – totaling over a million people – will also decide on Tuesday whether to legalize or depenalize the adult use of cannabis. Voters in Detroit will decide on Proposal M, which removes criminal penalties pertaining to the possession on private property of up to one ounce of marijuana by adults over age 21. In Flint, voters will decide on a citizens’ initiative to amend the city code so that the possession on private property of up to one ounce of marijuana or cannabis paraphernalia by those age 19 or older is no longer a criminal offense. Grand Rapids voters will act on Proposal 2, which seeks to allow local law enforcement the discretion to ticket first-time marijuana offenders with a civil citation, punishable by a $25 fine and no criminal record. In Ypsilanti, voters will decide on a proposal to make the local enforcement of marijuana possession offenses the city’s lowest law enforcement priority.
OREGON: Voters will decide on Measure 80, the Oregon Cannabis Tax Act, which provides for the state-licensed production and retail sale of cannabis to adults. The measure does not impose state-licensing or taxation requirements upon those who wish to cultivate cannabis for non-commercial purposes.
WASHINGTON: Voters will decide on I-502, which regulates the production and sale of limited amounts of marijuana for adults. The measure also removes criminal penalties specific to the adult possession of up to one ounce of cannabis for personal use. Voters in the state back the measure by a margin of 56 percent to 37 percent, according to the latest KING 5 poll.
Why Election Day Marks the Beginning of the End of Marijuana Prohibition
The criminalization of cannabis is a policy that has been in place federally since 1937 and on the state level, in many instances, long before that. Yet, it is a policy that fails to withstand serious scrutiny and possesses only limited public support. Today, a majority of Americans espouse ending America’s nearly century-long, failed experiment with cannabis prohibition and replacing it with a system of limited legalization and regulation. Recent national polls by Gallup , Rasmussen, The Huffington Post , and Angus Reid show that more Americans now support legalizing the adult use of cannabis than support maintaining its prohibition. Now it is time for a state to make this sentiment a reality.
Similar to alcohol prohibition, cannabis prohibition is a federal policy that largely relies on state and local enforcement. How did federal alcohol prohibition come to an end? Simple. When a sufficient number of states – led by New York in 1923 (several other states, including Colorado, later followed) – enacted legislation repealing the state’s alcohol prohibition laws. With states no longer doing the federal government’s bidding to enforce an unpopular law, the Feds eventually had no choice but to abandon the policy altogether.
Here’s to history repeating itself.
Read the full commentary here.
Next Tuesday, three voters in three states — Colorado, Oregon, and Washington — will be deciding on statewide ballot measures to legalize the adult possession, use, and distribution of cannabis. Today, US News & World Report ‘Debate Club’ asks its readers: “Should marijuana use be legalized?”
I, along with Alison Holcolm (New Approach Washington), provide commentaries in favor of ending cannabis prohibition. [Update: MPP's Morgan Fox also now has a commentary here.]
An excerpt from my op/ed appears below:
Marijuana Regulation Works and Prohibition Fails
via US News & World Report
Come November 7, voters in one, if not two, U.S. states will have decided in favor of legally regulating cannabis. Why? The answer is clear: regulation works; prohibition fails.
Since 1965, the FBI reports that U.S. law enforcement have made over 22 million arrests for marijuana violations. Yet cannabis consumption and the public’s access to pot remain undeterred. Cannabis prohibition financially burdens taxpayers, encroaches upon civil liberties, engenders disrespect for the law, impedes upon legitimate scientific research into the plant’s medicinal properties, and disproportionately impacts communities of color.
It’s time to stop stigmatizing and criminalizing tens of millions of Americans for choosing to consume a substance that is safer than either tobacco or alcohol.
… [A] pragmatic regulatory framework that allows for limited, licensed production and sale of cannabis to adults—but restricts use among young people—would best reduce risks associated with its use or abuse.
… In short, it’s legalization, regulation and public education—coupled with the enforcement of age restrictions—that most effectively keeps mind-altering substances out of the hands of children.
You can read the full text of my commentary here.
You can read Alison Holcolm’s contribution, “Marijuana Use Should Not Be a Crime,” here.
Predictably, longtime cannabis prohibitionists Kevin Sabet, a former assistant to the Drug Czar, and David Evans, an adviser to the Drug Free America Foundation, provide the ‘con’ perspective. You can read their contributions (largely for entertainment purposes only) here and here.
As in past editions of US News’ ‘Debate Club’, editors are asking visitors to vote ‘up’ the commentaries they like and to vote ‘down’ the arguments they oppose. Make your opinion heard. Please vote and share.