Obama's Marijuana Comments Are Great, But How About Some Action?

Obama has the worst reputation of any U.S. president in history when it comes to prisoner clemency.

President Obama's comments this week on marijuana marked a nudge in the right direction for U.S. drug policy. Now, the President should back up his words with his actions.

For those who missed it, he told David Remnick of the New Yorker:

“As has been well documented, I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life. I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.”

When asked, he reluctantly agreed that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol, “...in terms of its impact on the individual consumer. It’s not something I encourage, and I’ve told my daughters I think it’s a bad idea, a waste of time, not very healthy.”

The president appears to be plodding toward the realization of facts that drug policy reformers have been shouting to the government for years: the 40-year-old war on drugs is racist, misinformed and damaging to our society. So, what’s he going to do about it? If marijuana is safer than alcohol, why is it still listed as a “most dangerous drug” by the federal government? Where is the executive clemency for nonviolent marijuana prisoners? 

Obama’s most vehement reasoning on the topic of pot was, in Remnick’s words, “the radically disproportionate arrests and incarcerations for marijuana among minorities.”

“Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do,” Obama told Remnick. “And African-American kids and Latino kids are more likely to be poor and less likely to have the resources and the support to avoid unduly harsh penalties.”

He continued, “We should not be locking up kids or individual users for long stretches of jail time when some of the folks who are writing those laws have probably done the same thing.”

These are important statements. Still, Obama has taken few of the steps available to him to back up his words. 

He has the worst reputation of any U.S. president in history when it comes to prisoner clemency, which includes pardons and commutation of sentences. To date, he’s only issued 39 pardons, while more than 100,000 people remain behind bars in the U.S. due to drug war policies. Nonviolent drug offenders account for more than a quarter of all inmates in the U.S., up from less than 10 percent in 1980. 

In 2011, drug offenders accounted for 48 percent of the federal prisoner population and 16 percent of the state prisoner population. Half of all of those people are incarcerated for marijuana-related crimes, according to the Sentencing Project. More than 3,200 of these prisoners are serving life sentences for nonviolent offenses. 

These nonviolent prisoners remain incarcerated today because of involvement with a substance even the President now admits is safer than alcohol.

Last year, 43 percent of all FBI "arrests for drug abuse violation" were of people in possession of marijuana, and 6 percent of all drug-abuse violation arrests were for the "sale/manufacturing" of marijuana. So marijuana arrests account for almost half of all arrests in the country. Now, many of these offenses are legal in two U.S. states, and Obama has said he thinks those legalization policies are necessary for the betterment of society. 

He told the New Yorker, “It’s important for [the new laws in Washington and Colorado] to go forward because it’s important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished.”

However, the President has done little to support and apply similar policies nationwide. 

Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, said that while it’s “ultimately the responsibility of Congress to address America’s longstanding and failed drug policies, the President can use the bully pulpit to set the tone and move the conversation in the proper direction. Until recently, he has largely failed to do so."

Armentano continued, "But his recent public statements regarding the relative safety of cannabis compared to alcohol and his acknowledgement that criminalization disproportionately impacts minorities and the poor may indicate that the president and his party are finally willing to utilize their public platform and political capital to fight for actual changes in law, rather than simply acknowledge changes in attitude.”

It will ultimately come down to Congress to finally change federal cannabis law. However, Steve DeAngelo, director of the Oakland, Calif. medical cannabis dispensary Harborside Health Center and founder of the cannabis angel investor networ ArcView Group, pointed out that the President does have the authority to take several immediate steps, which would effectively dismantle the war on cannabis.

  • Order the DEA to reschedule cannabis from a Schedule 1 substance (the same as heroin or meth) to a lower and more appropriate schedule, which would dramatically reduce or eliminate federal prison sentences for cannabis.
  • Prohibit federal grants to state and local law enforcement agencies from being used for cannabis enforcement (except for sales to minors, use of weapons, cartel involvement).
  • Order all U.S. Attorneys to make all current and future prosecutions for cannabis crimes the very lowest priority of their offices (except for sales to minors, use of weapons, cartel involvement, etc.).
  • Order an end to the denial of federal benefits due to cannabis arrests or convictions (student loans, low income housing, organ transplants, unemployment insurance, etc.).
  • Order NIDA to fund research into the safety and benefits of cannabis (and reverse what Sanjay Gupta called 70 years of intentionally misleading information).

President Obama has the legal powers to end the daily tragedy and heartbreak caused by marijuana prohibition. Millions of nonviolent citizens are arrested and imprisoned due to the war on drugs—and marijuana in particular. Hundreds of thousands of patients are suffering without access to a proven medicine. Thousands of children are removed from their parents by protective agencies due to marijuana possession. 

Keeping marijuana illegal also empowers criminal gangs and cartels, and leads to the corruption and diversion of law enforcement. Legalization has the potential to move millions—even billions— of dollars in foregone jobs and tax revenue away from those corrupt sectors and into local, state and national economies.

DeAngelo said Obama’s “belated acknowledgement that cannabis has a less harmful impact on its users than alcohol deserves applause…. But the applause should not last too long: the time for talk is over, and now it's time for action.”

President Obama is saying some promising, hopeful things. Now it’s time for some action.

April M. Short is a yoga teacher and writer who previously worked as AlterNet's drugs and health editor. She currently edits part-time for AlterNet, and freelances for a number of publications nationwide.

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