President Barack Obama paid a visit to Jamaica in April, and he got a question from a local that shouldn’t be much of a shock to anyone: Will the United States legalize marijuana soon?
Obama declined to say where he stands on the issue, but he said he doesn’t expect lawmakers to enact significant cannabis reform in the near future.
“I do not foresee, anytime soon, Congress changing the law at a national basis,” the president said.
The question came from a local Rastafarian during a town hall gathering in the capital city of Kingstown. Miguel Williams, who wore a “Rasta4life” wrist band to the event, made a case for legalization and asked Obama whether he would lead the charge to change federal law in America.
Williams drew giggles as he offered his position on legal weed, but it didn’t seem to bother him. Rastafarians use cannabis as a religious sacrament and have pushed for legal protections for many years.
“Give thanks!” Williams said. “Yes, greetings, Mr. President, life and blessings on you and your family. My name is Miguel Williams but you can call I and I ‘steppa.’ That is quite sufficient, ya man.”
The audience found the interaction amusing, but Obama said he wasn’t surprised by the question. The president visited the home of Bob Marley, Jamaica’s national hero, before the town hall event; Marley was a Rasta.
Obama knew the question would arise
“How did I anticipate this question?” Obama said, sighing for comic effect. “There is the issue of legalization of marijuana and then there is the issue of decriminalizing or dealing with the incarceration, in some cases devastation of communities as a consequence of non-violent drug offenses.”
The president drew cheers when he said American anti-drug policies have done more harm than good.
“I am a very strong believer that the path that we have taken in the United States in the so-called ‘war on drugs’ has been so heavy in emphasizing incarceration that it has been counterproductive,” Obama said.
Obama unlikely to enact federal reform
But he fell short of offering support for legal weed. With less than two years left in his presidency, it’s unlikely Obama will play a significant part in legalization at the federal level. But it could come sooner than he thinks.
Congress has already passed two significant bills protecting medical marijuana in states where it’s legal, though officials at the Department of Justice have so far refused to obey that legislation. Instead they’ve continued their efforts to shut down law-abiding dispensaries in California and elsewhere.
The next step is to remove cannabis from schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act. A move to do just that is already underway in the U.S. Senate. It may not succeed on the first try, but the effort could ultimately lead to federal legalization by Congress.