Obama Says Easing Marijuana Restrictions a Job for Congress - But That's Just Not True

President Obama continued to hint this week that he might support loosening federal marijuana policies, although he inaccurately claimed it was the responsibility of Congress to initiate such a change.

“What is and isn’t a Schedule I narcotic is a job for Congress,” the President said during a CNN interview when asked if he would consider declassifying marijuana from its strict designation, which carries a definition of “high potential for abuse” and “no currently accepted medical use.”

However, the power lies within the executive branch to change marijuana scheduling to something less restrictive, or remove marijuana restrictions altogether. The Controlled Substance Act clearly gives authority to the Department of Justice, and by extension the Drug Enforcement Agency, to change a drug's schedule.

When interviewer Jake Tapper pressed Obama on his mistake, the President pivoted to speaking about a public health approach to pot.

While Obama dithers, voices are growing louder and more insistent that he act. A Change.org petition sponsored by the Marijuana Policy Project requesting that the government reschedule marijuana to a less restrictive designation currently has more than 85,000 signatures. Even the former Chief Administrative Law Judge at the US Drug Enforcement Administration, Francis L. Young, last year called for a rescheduling, stating that “it would be unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious for DEA to continue to stand between those sufferers and the benefits of this substance.”

The President this very week made a State of the Union speech in which he promised to use executive action when possible to get around a stubborn and dysfunctional Congress, but he would not commit when it comes to weed.

“I stand by my belief, based, I think, on the scientific evidence, that marijuana, for casual users, individual users, is subject to abuse, just like alcohol is and should be treated as a public health problem and challenge,” Obama said to CNN, referring to comments published in the New Yorker last week. “My concern is when you end up having very heavy criminal penalties for individual users that have been applied unevenly, and in some cases, with a racial disparity.”

In the New Yorker interview the President acknowledged publicly for the first time the obvious-to-all-with-a-brain fact that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol and that the drug war leads to “radically disproportionate arrests and incarcerations for marijuana among minorities.” Notably, alcohol is not on the DEA's drug schedule.

The president's words sparked the usual backlash from clueless pundits stuck in a prohibition mentality fueled by misinformation and propaganda, hyping false stereotypes about addiction and laziness, but momentum is on the side of a more fair and rational approach to drug laws.

In his CNN interview, Obama made an oblique comparison to cigarette marketing to explain his cautious stance, saying that activists pushing legalization "have to ask themselves some tough questions, too. Because if we start having a situation where big corporations with lots of resources and distribution and marketing arms are suddenly going out there, peddling marijuana, then the levels of abuse that may take place are going to be higher.”

Currently, 20 states plus Washington D.C. allow marijuana use for medicinal purposes, and Washington and Colorado have legalized recreational use. The drug's stigma is starting to wane in other sectors as well. National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell in an interview today would not rule out someday allowing players to use medicinal marijuana, which is currently banned by the league's drug policy. Democratic candidates for governor in Pennsylvania are competing to express the most pro-pot campaign messages, a notion unthinkable even a few years ago. And the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee this week advanced a measure that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences and give judges more discretion over punishments for drug offenses.

Obama is sending signals that he too is coming around, but will he back up his talk with action?

Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority, told Reason.com:

"It's very unfortunate that President Obama appears to want to pass the buck to Congress when it comes to marijuana laws. If the president truly believes what he says about marijuana, he has a moral imperative to make the law match up with his views and the views of the majority of the American people without delay. He should initiate the long overdue rescheduling of marijuana today."


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