Obama's Pot Breakthrough

An editorial from Editor & Publisher Jann S. Wenner and the Founder of the Drug Policy Alliance Ethan Nadelmann

President Barack Obama
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
President Barack Obama
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In a recent interview with The New Yorker, President Obama did something both brave and extraordinary for the commander in chief of the nation's War on Drugs: He told the truth.

Asked about state efforts to legalize pot, Obama declared of the drug, "I don't think it is more dangerous than alcohol." Without fanfare, Obama had just flouted decades of anti-pot propaganda by the federal government. And he wasn't done: Obama followed his Drug War apostasy by linking the prohibition of marijuana to the racist enforcement of the nation's drug laws. "Middle-class kids don't get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do," the president said. "And African-American kids and Latino kids are . . . less likely to have the resources . . . to avoid unduly harsh penalties."

Despite the offhand delivery, Obama's honest assessment of the safety of marijuana and the harm of criminalizing pot users marks a seismic shift in the War on Drugs. Just as important, the president connected his cleareyed rhetoric to policy changes at the Department of Justice. Attorney General Eric Holder has even pushed drug reform beyond pot, by renouncing draconian mandatory-minimum sentencing for low-level sellers of cocaine and other drugs.

The difference from the first Obama term has been remarkable. Previously, the president mocked the notion of pot legalization and even dispatched Holder in 2010 to warn Californians that federal agents would "vigorously enforce" federal law if the voters approved a legalization initiative on that year's ballot. But two years later, foreshadowing changes afoot, Holder refrained from delivering similar warnings to voters in Colorado, Washington and Oregon who were considering legislative initiatives of their own.

The real break came in late August 2013, when the Justice Department gave the two states where these initiatives had passed – Washington and Colorado – a qualified green light to proceed with taxing and regulating recreational marijuana. That light grew brighter in January, when Holder announced he'd be issuing new guidelines to enable the marijuana industry to bank at federally regulated financial institutions. And in that New Yorker interview, Obama did more than express a willingness to tolerate state legalization experiments. He praised them as "important" because they address the injustice and hypocrisy of selectively punishing black and brown kids for marijuana crimes when "some of the folks who are writing [anti-drug] laws have probably done the same thing."

The War on Drugs extends far beyond U.S. borders, of course. But so, evidently, does the administration's openness to pot legalization. Uruguay has followed in Colorado's and Washington's footsteps by legalizing marijuana. In December, the U.S. ambassador to Uruguay, Julissa Reynoso, reassured her South American hosts that our government regards Uruguay's drug reform as "an internal matter."

This support is not unqualified. As Holder made clear last August, states will need to prove that they can manage the shift to a legal regulatory system without increasing adolescent marijuana use or creating a flood of illegal exports to jurisdictions that still prohibit pot. The White House's message to foreign governments is likely similar: Reassure us that legalization will not increase trafficking to other countries or undermine U.S. security interests – and we will not object.

The president is a cautious man. Which is why it is all the more remarkable that Obama has stepped forward on this hot-button social issue before nearly any U.S. senator or sitting governor has had the gumption to do so. In one sense, Obama is meeting the people where they already are: Fifty-five percent of Americans now support marijuana legalization. But just because the policy is popular does not mean that Obama's move is easy or cost-free. Police organizations have protested vigorously; the drug czar and DEA chief are nonplused; and Republicans in Congress have questioned the administration's legal authority to disregard federal marijuana law.

The president and the attorney general are walking a tricky line. But what's clear is that they are embracing drug reform as a legacy issue. To complete what they've set in motion, they must follow through with conviction. That means firing sen­ior drug-control officials who publicly disagree with the new policies. It means cutting off funding for wasteful and counterproductive drug-enforcement programs. Above all, Obama and Holder will need to stay focused in the face of a prison-industrial complex and the vested bureaucratic interests that want nothing so much as to sustain the Drug War's status quo. Only time will tell whether these reforms represent the beginning of a revolution in national marijuana and criminal-justice policy. But they are off to a good start.

Jann S. Wenner, Editor & Publisher
Ethan Nadelmann, Founder, Drug Policy Alliance

From The Archives Issue 1203: February 27, 2014