Obama Calls Marijuana Legalization “a Debate That Is Now Ripe”
Barack Obama recently told Rolling Stone that he believes cannabis ought to be legally regulated like tobacco and alcohol. But that doesn’t mean that the outgoing President is intending to take executive action on this issue before exiting the White House.
“I am not somebody who believes that legalization is a panacea,” Obama stated in the interview. “But I do believe 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… It is untenable over the long term for the Justice Department of the DEA to be enforcing a patchwork of laws, where something that’s legal in one state could get you a 20-year prison sentence in another. So this is a debate that is now ripe, much in the same way that we ended up making progress on same-sex marriage. There’s something to this whole states-being-laboratories-of-democracy and an evolutionary approach. You now have a fifth of the country where this is legal.”
When asked explicitly about Obama’s comments at a recent White House press briefing, spokesperson Josh Earnest downplayed the remarks. Earnest said: “I think what the President is suggesting is that it’s increasingly difficult for federal law enforcement officials to be enforcing the law differently in a variety of states. And as we see more states change their laws with regard to marijuana, it makes it more challenging for federal law enforcement officials to enforce the law. So that’s something that I think the next administration is going to have to grapple with and certainly law enforcement officers in the next administration and some policymakers are going to have to sort of consider what’s the most effective way to move forward here. I don’t think the President at this point was trying to signal any specific policy change, but rather just indicating that this is an increasingly complicated situation that is facing federal law enforcement officers.”
In 2013, the Deputy Attorney General James Cole issued a memorandum directing U.S. prosecutors not to interfere with statewide marijuana legalization efforts, provided those efforts did not undermine specific federal priorities, such as the diversion of cannabis to non-legal states. But this directive is not binding to the next administration.
During the Presidential campaign, Donald Trump voiced support for the authority of individual states to impose regulatory policies specific to the use and dispensing of medical cannabis, but was somewhat less clear with regard to whether he believed that state lawmakers ought to be able to regulate the adult use of cannabis absent federal interference.
Trump nominee for Attorney General, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, strongly opposes any liberalization in cannabis policy, stating in April, “[M]arijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized.”
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