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01/22/2014 07:46 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2014

Obama Runs Marijuana Up the Flagpole

JIM WATSON via Getty Images

A new and extensive interview with President Obama recently appeared in the pages of The New Yorker magazine. In the middle of this wide-ranging piece, there is a short section where interviewer David Remnick asks the president -- after previously discussing his "evolution" on gay marriage -- about his views on marijuana and the law. Obama answered with as honest an evaluation as I think I have ever heard from an occupant of the Oval Office, during my entire lifetime, which makes me wonder a bit, since it is indeed that season of the year when presidents traditionally "run a few things up the flagpole to see who salutes" (as they say). In the weeks just before the State of the Union address, pet policy ideas are often floated in just such a fashion, in an attempt to gauge public reaction to new ideas or proposals. Perhaps I'm wrong about all of this, but the timing did seem more than a little coincidental.

Here is the relevant section of Remnick's article, reproduced in full (only one extraneous paragraph, detailing Obama's propensity to pause during an interview, has been edited out):

When I asked Obama about another area of shifting public opinion -- the legalization of marijuana -- he seemed even less eager to evolve with any dispatch and get in front of the issue. "As has been well documented, 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."

Is it less dangerous? I asked.

Obama leaned back and let a moment go by. [...]

Less dangerous, he said, "in terms of its impact on the individual consumer. It's not something I encourage, and I've told my daughters I think it's a bad idea, a waste of time, not very healthy." What clearly does trouble him is the radically disproportionate arrests and incarcerations for marijuana among minorities. "Middle-class kids don't get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do," he said. "And African-American kids and Latino kids are more likely to be poor and less likely to have the resources and the support to avoid unduly harsh penalties." But, he said, "we should not be locking up kids or individual users for long stretches of jail time when some of the folks who are writing those laws have probably done the same thing." Accordingly, he said of the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington that "it's important for it to go forward because it's important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished."

As is his habit, he nimbly argued the other side. "Having said all that, those who argue that legalizing marijuana is a panacea and it solves all these social problems I think are probably overstating the case. There is a lot of hair on that policy. And the experiment that's going to be taking place in Colorado and Washington is going to be, I think, a challenge." He noted the slippery-slope arguments that might arise. "I also think that, when it comes to harder drugs, the harm done to the user is profound and the social costs are profound. And you do start getting into some difficult line-drawing issues. If marijuana is fully legalized and at some point folks say, Well, we can come up with a negotiated dose of cocaine that we can show is not any more harmful than vodka, are we open to that? If somebody says, We've got a finely calibrated dose of meth, it isn't going to kill you or rot your teeth, are we O.K. with that?"

I have no idea what Obama meant by "There is a lot of hair on that policy," I have to admit, but the rest of it reads clearly and honestly. Obama long ago admitted personal experience with marijuana, and now that he's the father of a teenager, it is obvious that he's done some personal thinking about his position. He knows first-hand what the effects of marijuana are, and he has thought about the public policy long-term effects of both legalization and of the "arrest them all and lock them all up" approach. Astoundingly, Obama places marijuana in the "less dangerous than alcohol" category (or, perhaps, "not very different from cigarettes").

Obama, quite accurately, points out that what has ruined millions of young people's lives is not so much the abuse of marijuana as the treatment they have received by the judicial system. Middle-class kids' parents can afford lawyers, and so they don't go to jail -- a luxury that poor kids do not often benefit from. He then skewers the biggest hypocrisy of all -- the public's utter disdain for the marijuana laws that are passed and approved by people who in all likelihood smoked pot in college, and how such societal disgust with hypocritical laws weakens society as a whole. It is rare for anyone in public life to see the issue this clearly, and even rarer to hear a politician address the issue with such naked honesty. And that's speaking of any politician -- it is simply without precedent for a president to do so. While the last three presidents have indeed admitted to smoking pot at one point in their lives, the first to do so never even admitted he "inhaled," remember.

People who are pro-legalization have reacted to President Obama's comments with glee, although most of them fail to quote from that final paragraph, where Obama (in true Obama fashion) argues that maybe we shouldn't go too far in the other direction right away, especially in equating marijuana to other banned substances.

But this is precisely where one of the biggest problems lies -- the relative treatment of marijuana to other controlled dangerous substances (as drugs are officially called in federal law). And, coincidentally enough, it is also one of the few areas where Obama could essentially boldly act alone, without having to get congressional approval.

Keeping in mind that Obama put marijuana use as "less dangerous than alcohol" and perhaps as the equivalent of smoking cigarettes, where in the following legal breakdown would logic dictate we place marijuana?

(1) Schedule I.

    (A) The drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse.

    (B) The drug or other substance has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.

    (C) There is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.

(2) Schedule II.

    (A) The drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse.

    (B) The drug or other substance has a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States or a currently accepted medical use with severe restrictions.

    (C) Abuse of the drug or other substances may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence.

(3) Schedule III.

    (A) The drug or other substance has a potential for abuse less than the drugs or other substances in schedules I and II.

    (B) The drug or other substance has a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.

    (C) Abuse of the drug or other substance may lead to moderate or low physical dependence or high psychological dependence.

(4) Schedule IV.

    (A) The drug or other substance has a low potential for abuse relative to the drugs or other substances in schedule III

    (B) The drug or other substance has a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.

    (C) Abuse of the drug or other substance may lead to limited physical dependence or psychological dependence relative to the drugs or other substances in schedule III.

(5) Schedule V.

    (A) The drug or other substance has a low potential for abuse relative to the drugs or other substances in schedule IV.

    (B) The drug or other substance has a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.

    (C) Abuse of the drug or other substance may lead to limited physical dependence or psychological dependence relative to the drugs or other substances in schedule IV.

It'd be easy to make a case for Schedule III, IV, or even V, really. Medically, it would be tough to make the case that marijuana belongs on Schedule II, since marijuana just doesn't "lead to severe psychological or physical dependence." But the federal government, in its wisdom, has always classified marijuana as a Schedule I substance -- no "currently accepted medical use in treatment" at all, and a "lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision," even though nobody has ever died from an overdose (a claim that even over-the-counter drugs like aspirin can't honestly make).

Need some perspective on the scheduling decisions? Here is a short list (from the DEA's full list) of drugs currently classified as Schedule II (less harmful than marijuana, in other words): cocaine, opium, amphetamine, methamphetamine, PCP, and Demerol. Yes, you read that right -- the federal government considers marijuana to be more dangerous than crystal meth and cocaine, which is just patently ridiculous.

The classification of marijuana as a Schedule I substance has always been scientifically and medically inaccurate, but it is becoming more and more politically tough to defend as well. Consider for just one moment that the federal government itself has allowed marijuana to be prescribed as medicine to a select few (for glaucoma treatment, mostly) since the late 1970s. And consider that over 40 percent of state-level jurisdictions now allow marijuana to be prescribed by a doctor. This number could climb to over 25 states by the end of this year, in fact -- which would mean that half the country approved of using marijuana as medicine, and even though the federal government allowed such prescriptions for glaucoma sufferers, marijuana was still classified by the federal government as having "no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States."

When stated thus, it's easy to see how indefensible the continued listing of marijuana on Schedule I truly is. Alcohol and tobacco are not even on the dangerous controlled substance schedules, because they are not considered "drugs." It is impossible to reconcile that with Obama's just-stated views on the harmfulness of marijuana.

When Barack Obama campaigned for office, he explicitly said he wanted to "restore scientific integrity to government" and ensure that science is "never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda." Now that he faces a gridlocked Congress, he has reportedly been searching for ways to use executive actions to accomplish change (especially after bringing in John Podesta as a special advisor to explore the options available), which, in this case, he can do, since changing a substance from one schedule to another can be accomplished by the Attorney General's signature.

With almost half the states allowing marijuana to be used medicinally, and with President Obama's stated opinion that marijuana is "less dangerous" than alcohol and "not very different from cigarettes," the time has come for rescheduling marijuana. Doing so would not legalize it anywhere and would not change any other federal laws regarding drugs at all. But it would allow research to be performed (without miles and miles of red tape attached), which would open the gates for scientists to freely study the therapeutic effects of marijuana. It would also be the biggest signal yet that the federal government is going to have to change its thinking on marijuana in the near future in a big way.

Obama should use the opportunity of his upcoming State of the Union speech to outline this historic change. He should announce to the nation that he is directing Eric Holder to reclassify marijuana based on science and not on politics. Obama ran on getting the politics out of what should be scientific public policy decisions, so this would be a return to this campaign promise for him. He should use the occasion to gracefully turn the federal government toward a rational marijuana policy and away from the overheated and overblown rhetoric the drug warriors have been using for decades to demonize the "evil weed." Obama himself has just shown a very balanced and realistic personal viewpoint on the subject, one that encompasses the way the justice system actually works in real life. While reclassifying marijuana would be just one step towards ending the inequities and "unduly harsh penalties" of the federal war on weed, it would be the biggest step to date and one that is increasingly overdue. President Obama should take this step, for the good of the country.

 

Chris Weigant blogs at:

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