Late Tuesday, the White House responded to a petition filed by political columnist and former KHOW talk-show host David Sirota on the White House's "We The People" website which requested that the federal government respect states' rights regarding marijuana legalization.
President Barack Obama's administration called upon drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, to respond to the petition who writes, "it is clear that we're in the midst of a serious national conversation about marijuana." Kerlikowske goes on to state:
At President Obama's request, the Justice Department is reviewing the legalization initiatives passed in Colorado and Washington, given differences between state and federal law. In the meantime, please see a recent interview with Barbara Walters in which President Obama addressed the legalization of marijuana.
What the White House drug czar does not make clear is what progress, if any, had been made on the Justice Department's review of Colorado and Washington's state initiatives that made marijuana legal for recreational use last November. Instead, he simply quoted Obama's most recent remarks made to ABC News' Barbara Walters when she asked him, "Do you think that marijuana should be legalized?" To which Obama responded:
Well, I wouldn't go that far. But what I think is that, at this point, Washington and Colorado, you've seen the voters speak on this issue. And as it is, the federal government has a lot to do when it comes to criminal prosecutions. It does not make sense from a prioritization point of view for us to focus on recreational drug users in a state that has already said that under state law that's legal.
…this is a tough problem because Congress has not yet changed the law. I head up the executive branch; we're supposed to be carrying out laws. And so what we're going to need to have is a conversation about how do you reconcile a federal law that still says marijuana is a federal offense and state laws that say that it's legal.
When you're talking about drug kingpins, folks involved with violence, people are who are peddling hard drugs to our kids in our neighborhoods that are devastated, there is no doubt that we need to go after those folks hard… it makes sense for us to look at how we can make sure that our kids are discouraged from using drugs and engaging in substance abuse generally. There is more work we can do on the public health side and the treatment side.
"I guess it makes a difference when marijuana legalization gets more votes than your boss does in an important swing state, as happened in Colorado this last election" marijuana reformer Tom Angell wrote in an email about Kerlikowske's response. "From 'legalization is not in my vocabulary and it's not in the president's,' as Gil Kerlikowske often used to say, to 'it is clear that we're in the midst of a serious national conversation about marijuana' is a pretty stark shift. Of course, what really matters is to what extent the administration actually shifts enforcement priorities and budgets, but I sure do like hearing the US drug czar acknowledge the fact that marijuana legalization is a mainstream discussion that is happening whether he likes it or not."
This morning, Sirota, who originally submitted the the petition, reacted to Kerlikowske's response in a new piece on Salon.com stating that the drug czar's statement is historic, but may not be as encouraging as it seems. Sirota writes:
Remember, the petition I filed asks the president to support states’ right to choose (or not choose) to legalize marijuana. In response, the president’s has opted to reiterate that he ultimately does not support legalization. One way to logically connect the dots is to assume that his reiterating such a position in response to this particular petition is an attempt to tell us that he does not support the federal legislation in question. After all, if he’s asked whether he supports letting states legalize marijuana, and he responds by saying he doesn’t support legalization, it stands to reason that he’s trying to at once avoid taking an unpopular stand against state sovereignty but also get himself on record opposing the bill.
This, however, is too serious an issue for such parsing and prevarication. The war on marijuana is not merely about your right to smoke a joint — it is about everything from wasteful deficit-expanding spending on prisons and police to inhumane incarceration policies to racist drug enforcement policies to a culture that effectively encourages law-abiding citizens to choose more toxic drugs (alcohol) over safer ones (marijuana).
The president — who was once a serious marijuana user — needs to better enunciate where he stands not just on the issue of legalization in general, but on the issue of whether states should have the right to make their own decisions about marijuana policy. Here’s hoping he stands on the right side of that fight — or at least clarifies where he stands so that an honest “national conversation” can continue.
Sirota skepticism is justified. Optimism about a second-term Obama administration that turns its stance around on marijuana might be difficult for some pot business owners who have seen the DOJ aggressively crack down on medical marijuana dispensaries in states like California and Colorado where hundreds of pot shops have been shuttered just since the beginning of 2012.
Plus the Obama administration suggested near the end of last year that it was considering plans to undermine the voter initiatives in a New York Times report. And in his interview with Walters, Obama did not say whether his administration would go after producers and suppliers of marijuana in those states.
However, perhaps the passage of measures in Washington and Colorado has tipped the scales too far for the Obama administration to come back from. According to a HuffPost/YouGov poll, a majority of Americans now want the Department of Justice to leave pot smokers alone in the states where the drug has been legalized.
In Colorado, Gov. John Hickenlooper has formed a marijuana task force to determine policy and legal issues related to the passage of Amendment 64. The group has until the end of February to make recommendations to the governor on how to handle the new law.