Barack Obama: A Presidential Reefer Retrospective
No other president besides Barack Obama has backed the federal government away from both enforcing cannabis prohibition and propagandizing against its use. Despite not running on a pro-pot platform in either his 2008 or 2012 presidential campaigns, or choosing to de-schedule cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, Obama nonetheless will be credited with being the first U.S. president who didn’t have the stomach to keep justifying a failed public policy such as cannabis prohibition.
HAWAII AND THE CHOOM GANG
Born in Honolulu on Aug. 4, 1961, Obama was raised in Indonesia after his parents divorced and his mother remarried and moved to Jakarta when he was 4 years old. In 1971, Obama returned to Hawaii, where he lived with his grandparents until he graduated high school in 1979.
Of those years, Obama wrote in his 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father: “Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it.”
He and his friends called themselves the Choom Gang; “to choom” was their slang for smoking marijuana. In his 2012 book, Barack Obama: The Story, Davis Maraniss reported, “Barry Obama was known for starting a few pot-smoking trends.” One was called “total absorption,” which involved holding in hits for as long as possible. Another Obama innovation was the “interception,” where he would jump into the circle to take the next hit from a joint being passed around.
According to Maraniss, Obama and his crew drove around Honolulu in a VW bus dubbed the Choomwagon, in which they “turned up the stereo playing Aerosmith, Blue Oyster Cult and Stevie Wonder, lit some sweet, sticky Hawaiian buds and washed it down with green-bottled beer.”
Although Obama never got in trouble for these activities, his alleged dealer, Ray Boyer, did get arrested, and was killed by his gay lover in 1986.
In 2006, Obama took a swipe at Bill Clinton when he revealed, “When I was a kid I inhaled frequently. That was the point.”
FROM COLLEGIATE POTHEAD TO POTUS
From 1979–1983 Obama attended Occidental College in Los Angeles and then Columbia University in New York, and continued his studies in 1988 at Harvard Law School, where he graduated in 1991. He subsequently settled in Chicago, where he taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School and met his future wife Michelle (they married in 1992). After a stint at a law firm, Obama decided to run for the Illinois Senate in 1996. He served several terms in the Statehouse before turning his focus to Congress.
During the U.S. Senate race in 2004, Obama made his first public comment about marijuana in front of an audience of Northwestern University students. “The War on Drugs has been an utter failure,” he told the collegiate crowd. “We need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws.”
Obama won the race and joined the Senate in 2005. In a letter to his constituents a year later, he wrote: “I’m aware of the argument that legalizing marijuana would make the drug more ‘controlled’ or safer, and that it may curb the violence associated with the sale of an illegal substance. I also appreciate that many physicians believe that medicinal marijuana can be helpful to some patients.”
Not yet finished with his first term on Capitol Hill, Obama set his sights on the White House. During his 2008 presidential campaign, he told reporters in New Hampshire, “I would not have the Justice Department prosecuting and raiding medical marijuana users,” which had been a regular occurrence— mostly in California—under the second Bush administration.
He took frontrunner Hillary Clinton by surprise and defeated her in the Democratic primaries, leading to his party’s nomination. After a disastrous G.W. Bush presidency, Obama overwhelmed Republican challenger John McCain to become the 44th president of the United States.
FIRST TERM: A NOD TO LEGALIZATION
During the 80-day period before his 2009 inauguration, Obama warned the DEA and U.S. Attorneys that federal marijuana raids in states like California would be subject to immediate review in the new administration.
Unlike the previous drug-warring presidents (from Nixon to G.W. Bush), Obama’s newly appointed drug czar, former Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, invited NORML and other drug policy reform groups, for the first time, to the Office of National Drug Control Policy to suggest drug policy reforms for the new president to consider.
As “the first social media president,” soon after taking office Obama agreed to participate in a town hall-style meeting broadcast on the Internet, working off of a set of the most popular questions derived from online petitions. Unsurprisingly, one of the top questions at the March 2009 event, watched live by millions, was whether or not the new president supported cannabis legalization as a means of improving the economy and creating jobs.
Obama’s reply was disparagingly comedic, and also disappointing: “I don’t know what this says about the online audience. This was a fairly popular question, we want to make sure that it was answered. The answer is, no, I don’t think that is a good strategy to grow our economy.”
Cannabis activists, consumers and industry professionals went into an uproar about this presidential weed diss. However, at that time, while I was executive director of NORML, I saw Obama’s laughter more as a type of gallows humor about a serious public policy concern that was quite rightfully being overshadowed by far more pressing matters confronting him: the major policy reforms that he campaigned for and was already trying to ram through Congress, such as dealing with the banking and insurance company crisis; an auto industry bailout; Obamacare; and closing the Guantanamo Bay prison, to name just a few.
But Obama’s response also indicated that, despite his Choom Gang roots, he wasn’t going to dive into the marijuana legalization issue. Decrim seemed a more preferred position for him to adopt at that point, as was also the case with same-sex civil unions, which he preferred to legalizing gay marriage. However, as time would pass, Obama would evolve on both of these issues.
One of Obama’s first executive orders, issued on May 20, 2009, instructed federal bureaucracies to largely defer to local and state laws and regulations— which seemed to be laying the ground-work for allowing greater state autonomy in creating cannabis policies that would conflict with anti-cannabis federal laws and enforcement efforts.
Later in 2009, on Oct. 19, the Justice Department under Attorney General Eric Holder issued its first major policy statement regarding marijuana. Penned by Deputy Attorney General David Ogden and known as the Ogden Memo, it discouraged U.S. Attorneys from interfering with state medical marijuana laws. “As a general matter,” Ogden wrote, “pursuit of these priorities should not focus federal resources in your States on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.”
On June 29, 2011, in a second memo on the same subject, Ogden’s replacement, James Cole, reminded prosecutors “that it is not likely an efficient use of federal resources to focus enforcement efforts on individuals with cancer or other serious illnesses who use marijuana as part of a recommended treatment regimen consistent with applicable state law, or their caregivers.”
SECOND TERM: LABORATORIES OF DEMOCRACY
The 2012 presidential election was momentous for several reasons: Obama defeated Mitt Romney, and two states, Colorado and Washington, voted to legalize all uses of marijuana, not just medical.
Just weeks after the election, 18 members of Congress sent a letter to the DEA and DOJ asking that they exercise “restraint” in the new legal and medical states. They invoked what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said about the states—that they are “laboratories of democracy.” Four years later, that phrase would be included in the Democratic Party platform.
In April 2013 at the White House Correspondents’ dinner, Obama cracked up the crowd when he acknowledged his prior pot use: “I remember when BuzzFeed was something I did in college around 2 am.” But in a speech given a month later in Guadalajara, Mexico, he reiterated his stance that “legalizing drugs is not the answer. Instead, I believe in a comprehensive approach—not just law enforcement, but education, prevention and treatment. And we’re going to keep at it, because the lives of our children and the future of our nations depend on it.”
With full legalization then in effect in two states, the DOJ issued its third marijuana memo, again authored by Cole, which aimed to clarify how states could stay within federal law while implementing their new cannabis policies: No distribution to minors; no sales to cartels; no diversion to other states; no trafficking of other drugs; no violence and use of fire-arms; no cultivation on public land; no use on federal property; and prevention of drugged driving. As long as these eight rules were followed, the Feds promised not to interfere.
From 2010 to 2014 these DOJ memos spurred numerous state legislatures to pass legislation and/or regulations that allow for the production and sale of cannabis for medical use with a recommendation from a licensed physician. Unfortunately for patients, providers and entrepreneurs in California—due in part to the state legislature’s longstanding inability to create a regulated and taxed medical cannabis industry—federal prosecutors led by San Francisco’s Melinda Haag continued to raid medical cannabis businesses, tried to shut down Oaksterdam University and arrested its founder Richard Lee in 2012. The legal shenanigans of the federal attorneys against the medical cannabis industry in California strongly suggested that, absent state laws establishing adult-use legal cannabis production and sales, the federal government would continue prosecuting patients and dispensaries, despite changing public opinion and the stated will of the president.
Early in 2014, Obama said of his youthful use: “I made bad choices. I got high, without always thinking about the harm it could do…. I grew up in an environment that was a bit more forgiving. So when I made a mistake the consequences were not so severe.” He clearly was referring to the legal consequences so many Americans— especially African Americans—have to deal with when they’re arrested for marijuana possession, which he managed to avoid.
In a New Yorker interview a month earlier, Obama told David Remnick: “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.”
The latter statement received quite a bit of attention, since this has been the contention of many legalization advocates. If alcohol is more dangerous than marijuana, then why is the former legal and the latter prohibited?
At the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in May, 2014, Obama joked about marijuana legalization in Colorado, which had begun in January: “It’s an interesting social experiment. I do hope it doesn’t lead to a whole lot of paranoid people who think that the federal government’s out to get them and listening to their phone calls. That would be a problem.”
Though he’d chosen an attorney general who apparently shared his views about marijuana, Obama neglected to make changes at the DEA, allowing Bush appointee Michele Leonhart to remain as the agency’s administrator. Leonhart was a bad fit for the Obama administration. She took issue with Obama’s statement about marijuana being not more harmful than alcohol, and even chided the White House for participating in a softball match against drug reformers (the White House lost), and for flying an American flag made of hemp over the White House on July 4, 2013.
Finally, after the embarrassment of a sex scandal involving DEA agents in Colombia, Obama asked for and received Leonhart’s resignation, on April 19, 2015. But it was nearly seven years too late, and the damage of her tenure had already been done. Leonhart’s replacement, Chuck Rosenberg, hasn’t been much of an improvement. In November 2015, he stated:
“What really bothers me is the notion that marijuana is also medicinal—because it’s not. We can have an intellectually honest debate about whether we should legalize something that is bad and dangerous, but don’t call it medicine— that is a joke. There are pieces of marijuana—extracts or constituents or component parts—that have great promise. But if you talk about smoking the leaf of marijuana—which is what people are talking about when they talk about medicinal marijuana—it has never been shown to be safe or effective as a medicine.”
Meanwhile, Holder moved ahead with a series of DOJ reforms to the federal criminal justice system; he also criticized drug war police tactics and even instructed U.S. Attorneys to no longer include the weight of seized drugs on the charging documents, so as to not add even more prisoners to the already over-burdened federal criminal justice system.
During this time Obama distinguished himself from any previous president by minimizing the role of the ONDCP. In 2014, he replaced Kerlikowske with Michael Botticelli, a former alcoholic who is openly gay. In 2015, Botticelli told a House subcommittee: “The administration continues to oppose attempts to legalize marijuana and other drugs. It bears emphasizing that the Department of Justice’s responsibility to enforce the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged.” In 2014, when Nebraska and Oklahoma filed lawsuits to compel Colorado to re-prohibit marijuana, the DOJ sided with Colorado (and, by extension, the many other states that have already created legal and taxed cannabis commerce). The Supreme Court dismissed the case on March 21, 2016.
In a 2015 YouTube interview, Obama clarified his administration’s approach to legalization: “What you’re seeing now is Colorado and Washington, through state referenda, they’re experimenting with legal marijuana. The position of my administration has been that we still have federal laws that classify marijuana as an illegal substance. But we’re not going to spend a lot of resources trying to turn back decisions that have been made at the state level on this issue. My suspicion is that you’re going to see other states start looking at this.”
He was right. Two more states—Oregon and Alaska—joined Colorado and Washington in 2014, and four more— California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada—were added in 2016.
When Justin Trudeau was elected prime minister of Canada in 2015, he rode to victory on a magic carpet made of hemp; one of his major campaign promises was to legalize marijuana. While that appears to be at least a year or two away from happening, there has been no anti-pot bluster directed at our Northern neighbor from the White House. Neither has the State Department, ONDCP or DEA under Obama protested or interfered in the domestic affairs of Uruguay, Jamaica, Mexico and other countries in the Western hemisphere that are evolving away from pot prohibition and moving toward full cannabis legalization.
During Obama’s two terms, there has been a significant decline in marijuana arrests nationwide. Since a high of 873,000 arrests in 2007 under G.W. Bush, that number went down 26%, to 643,000, in 2015. In addition to states voting for legalization, many cities—New York, Philadelphia and Chicago, to name a few—passed decrim regulations during the last eight years. In New York, where pot arrests peaked at 50,000 a year under Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg, that number is now under 20,000. However, the historical racial disparity in national cannabis arrests stubbornly persists, with minorities apprehended on marijuana charges nearly four times as often as whites.
National polling in favor of legalization now tops 60%. More and more states are passing cannabis legalization policies, and invoking the Ogden and Cole memos. Meanwhile, surrounding countries in the hemisphere continue to legalize their own systems of cannabis commerce.
While he didn’t end cannabis prohibition in America on his eight-year watch, President Obama and his administration unequivocally did more to advance state and national cannabis law reform than any previous president. History will show that the pot prohibition epoch in America largely came to an end during his tenure.
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