This could be a huge year for marijuana reform. Legalization will be on the ballot in Nevada, and probably in several other states. Lawmakers elsewhere could legalize by way of legislatures. Congress could reschedule the drug.
But don’t expect much out of the Obama administration.
White House spokesman John Earnest said in January that the president has no plans to pursue reform in 2016. Any action would have to come from Congress, Earnest said.
At least one lawmaker said Obama confirmed as much at a Democratic retreat in Baltimore the day before Earnest’s comments. The president told fellow Democrats legalization was not on his list of priorities for his last year in office.
Obama asked to reschedule cannabis
Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee told The Washington Post that he asked Obama whether he wants to reschedule cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. That law divides legally controlled drugs into five categories, or schedules. Marijuana is listed on the most restrictive schedule, along with heroin, synthetic pot, and LSD.
Obama reportedly told the group he has no plans to move toward rescheduling. Cohen called the answer “disappointing.”
“On marijuana, he gave the same answer as when I asked him seven years ago,” Cohen said. “‘If you get me a bill, and get it on my desk, I’ll probably sign it.'”
In other words, Obama supports reform but isn’t willing to put any political capital into making it happen. There could be any number of reasons, including a desire to put the office to other uses as his final term ends. He could also be gambling that reform will continue to build steam whether he acts or not.
2016 is a promising year for reform
Still, as Cohen noted, it’s a disappointing turn in an otherwise hopeful year. With Republicans in Control of both houses, it’s unlikely Congress will vote on legalization anytime soon.
That means reform will fall on the shoulders of the next president. Though Obama believes rescheduling should be up to Congress, the DEA also has authority to move marijuana from schedule 1 to a lower schedule, most likely schedule 2. The DEA answers to the Department of Justice, which answers to the president.
It’s unlikely a president will order the DEA to reschedule within the next few years, however. The DOJ is traditionally given wide discretion in how it enforces drug law, and officials there have no inclination to reclassify cannabis.
Obama urged to take action
The president has in the past insisted he won’t order the DOJ to remove pot from schedule 1.
“There are some in the Democratic Party who have urged the president to take this kind of action,” Earnest said. “The president’s response was, ‘If you feel so strongly about it, and you believe there is so much public support for what it is that you’re advocating, then why don’t you pass legislation about it and we’ll see what happens?'”
Marijuana advocates weren’t happy about Earnest’s remarks. They have complained for years that the administration has moved toward reform at a glacial pace.
“This isn’t the first time President Obama has unnecessarily tried to pass the buck on marijuana rescheduling to Congress,” said Tom Angell, spokesman for the Marijuana Majority. “It’s unacceptable and frankly embarrassing for a president who has so nonchalantly acknowledged his own marijuana use to allow the federal government to continue classifying cannabis in such an inappropriate category.”