Barack Obama began as an intriguing president, particularly on matters of drug policy. On the campaign trail, he never bullshitted us about his past marijuana use (unlike someone else who famousy demured, “I didn’t inhale”). Instead, in 2006, he openly admitted, “I inhaled—that was the point.“ That quip, coupled with his admission of having also used cocaine and a few other unpresidential spasms of honesty, gave many the wild hope that he would finally be the Commander in Chief who curbed the insanity that is America’s forgotton war: the war on drugs. The DEA and anti-drug task forces across the country have wasted billions of dollars a year on it. The prison and jail population has swelled to more than two million people as police gained more powers and Americans lost theirs, all because drugs like pot, cocaine and ecstasy were deemed an existential threat to the nation—or to white people, depending on how far back you want to check.
When Obama took office in January 2009, there wasn’t a single state that had legalized recreational marijuana. A handful of states had legalized medical marijuana, but the separation of law enforcement caused federal officials to frequently target dispensaries in those states.
By Obama’s reelection in November 2012, there was a change. Voters in Washington and Colorado had approved initiatives to legalize recreational marijuana. Four years after that, Alaska, California, Washington D.C., Oregon, Nevada, Massachusetts and Maine followed suit. Today, some 28 states allow medical marijuana use with varying levels of restriction. And, though federal agents still shut down clinics, these states have mostly been allowed to operate their own way. This year, Colorado reported that pot sales in the state reached $1 billion.
It is difficult to know how much credit Obama is due for the public’s backlash against the so-called war on drugs.
And yet, it is difficult to know how much credit Obama is due for the public’s backlash against the so-called war on drugs. More than a third of Americans have tried marijuana and more than 60 percent believe it should be legalized. Even more believe it should be allowed as medicine. But Obama has been cagey on the issue of national legalization, even as he gently pressed forward against some old policies. Rather, after Colorado and Washington began the process of legalization, he simply stepped out of the way.
Tom Angell, the founder and chairperson of the Marijuana Majority, has felt both disappointments and triumphs under the Obama administration. "As a whole, this administration has been all over the map when it comes to cannabis. On the one hand, the White House disappointed us by looking the other way, while the DEA rejected science to keep marijuana in Schedule I,” Angell told Playboy via email. “On the other hand, this president has given us the chance to show the world that legalization works by simply getting the feds out of the way. A growing number of states have been able to implement their new laws without much interference.”
While a worse president—or a president in a different time—would have stood in the way of the progress made toward pot legalization, a better one might have more actively helped it move along. He (or she) might not have appointed a DEA head like Michele Leonhart, who in 2014 refused to acknowledge that marijuana was less dangerous than heroin. Leonhart’s views were widespread before Obama appointed her; he can hardly claim ignorance. Obama also picked Attorney General Eric Holder, who has exhibited a similar coyness about marijuana. Holder, however, as attorney general, never told the Department of Justice to stand down or lessen federal policing of drug laws. (True, he also didn’t send feds to, say, completely run over Colorado and Washington’s legalization effors.)
The Obama administration also failed to challenge Congress to reschedule marijuana or remove it completely. It is still as listed a Schedule I substance, meaning it has no accepted medical value. Policy managers will argue they can’t support rescheduling because there are too few federal studies on pot’s medical benefits. What they won’t tell you is that such studies are nearly non-existent because it’s a Schedule I drug. What wonderfully circular logic, don’t you think?
In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, a lame duck Obama criticized the war on drugs more than he has in previous years, saying 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.” He also noted that the DEA, unsurprisingly, is reticent about admitting marijuana’s safety. Obama also pays lip service to the idea that states are a “laboratory of democracy.”
If Obama used executive muscle on the drug war the way he has with, oh, going after whistleblowers or legalizing drone assassination of American citizens, maybe he could have gotten somewhere on chipping away at federal restrictions on Mary Jane. But this isn’t unique to Obama. No president before him cared enough to spend tax money on ending the drug war. Instead, it may forever be a fringe issue pushed by the likes of representative like Barney Frank and the now-retired Ron Paul.
The important thing is that Obama seems ready, at least personally, to file marijuana alongside its cousins tobacco and liquor. It’s 80 years overdue—but not bad for the head of the executive branch. If anything, as a lame duck, Obama is demonstrating that he’s nearly ready to be a private citizen. Perhaps by January 20, he’ll start saying damning things about the drug war again, just in time for President Trump to roll into office. Or, with Senator Jeff “Good people don’t smoke marijuana” Sessions as his attorney general, perhaps Trump will look at the progress America has been making on this issue, see it as dangerous and move to prune the green leaves. In his final days, Obama could try to make that a little bit harder for Trump—but he doesn’t appear to be interested in doing so. He’s content to sit back and retire knowing that marijuana is a minor vice at best, and that he was the cool president who got it.