Obama's 100-Day Grade on Marijuana Policy: Incomplete

Millions of Americans who voted for Barack Obama for president did so hoping he would make substantial changes in America's so-called war on drugs, with particular hopes for more sensible marijuana policies.

While the president has set a clear direction in many policy areas, thus far reformers can only give him a grade of "incomplete" on marijuana policy. 

On the plus side, Attorney General Eric Holder affirmed in February and March that candidate Obama's campaign statements that the U.S. Department of Justice should not spend its resources raiding and arresting patients and providers following state medical marijuana laws are "now American policy." Henceforth, raids would only be directed at those violating both state and federal laws, he said. 

But not long after Holder made that statement, Drug Enforcement Administration agents raided a city-licensed medical marijuana facility in San Francisco in what appeared to be a violation of the new policy. The DEA claimed that the action was justified because the facility was violating state law but has provided no explanation of these supposed violations or why, if that claim is true, they didn't notify the city of San Francisco, which had licensed the operation. 

And while Holder did not say anything about revisiting medical marijuana prosecutions left over from the Bush administration, many of us hoped DOJ would have a change of heart and request lenient sentencing for Charles Lynch, a law-abiding medical marijuana provider licensed by the city of Morro Bay, Calif., whose case has become a cause celebre [http://www.friendsofccl.com/]. Instead, prosecutors asked for five years in federal prison for Lynch, but the judge has delayed sentencing. 

Also encouraging, the administration has delayed implementation of a DEA order quashing a vital medical marijuana research project, extending the deadline till May 1. That project, proposed by Professor Lyle Craker of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is considered essential if marijuana is ever to be licensed by the FDA as a prescription medicine.

Advocates are hoping for a reversal of the DEA's initial ruling or, failing that, another postponement until Obama appoints a new head of the agency to replace Michele Leonhart, the Bush holdover who sought to stop Craker's research. 

Meanwhile, there have been increasing stirrings of support for broader marijuana-law reform, as it has become apparent that our modern-day prohibition has multiple pernicious effects: It deprives government of billions of dollars in tax revenues from the marijuana industry while handing this very large market to criminals, including the brutal Mexican drug gangs murdering thousands along our southern border.

But when the issue was raised at an online town hall in March, Obama dismissed it in a hurry. The most striking thing about Obama's response was how much effort the president -- who may be the most thorough policy wonk ever to hold the office -- seemed to put into avoiding the substance of the question. The whole exercise had the air of a skilled politician trying to get away from an uncomfortable subject as fast as possible. 

While we have a pretty good idea of where Obama is heading on issues like the economy and health care, his direction on marijuana and drug policy remains unclear. His drug czar designate, Seattle Chief of Police Gil Kerlikowski, is no reformer, but neither is he an anti-marijuana fanatic like Bush's drug czar, John Walters. 

Many in the drug-policy reform community have expressed disappointment as the new administration reaches the 100-day mark, but all we really know thus far is that Obama is reluctant to spend political capital early in his term on marijuana issues.

There are enough good reasons to rethink our nation's approach to marijuana that we remain hopeful that this calmly charismatic president will eventually lead America to policies that make sense.

But for now, we're still waiting.


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