In recent interview in Rolling Stone magazine, President Obama said that marijuana use should be treated as a public-health issue similar to tobacco or alcohol and called the current patchwork of state and federal laws regarding the drug “untenable.”
In the Rolling Stone interview published this week, Obama also reiterated his long-standing position that changing federal marijuana laws is not something the president can do unilaterally. “Typically how these classifications are changed are not done by presidential edict,” he said, “but are done either legislatively or through the DEA. As you might imagine, the DEA, whose job it is historically to enforce drug laws, is not always going to be on the cutting edge about these issues.”
The Drug Enforcement Administration recently turned down a petition to lessen federal restrictions on marijuana, citing the drug's lack of “accepted medical use” and its “high potential for abuse.” Congress could resolve the conflict between state and federal marijuana laws by amending the federal Controlled Substances Act, but it has declined to do so.
Marijuana legalization advocates have been frustrated at what they see as Obama's unwillingness to use his bully pulpit to advocate for their cause. “It would have been very helpful if he had taken more concrete positive action on this issue before it was almost time to vacate the Oval Office,” Tom Angell of the pro-legalization group Marijuana Majority said in a statement. “That this president didn’t apply pressure on the DEA to reschedule marijuana this year will likely go down as one of the biggest disappointments of the Obama era.”
There is little disagreement on either side of the legalization debate that personal marijuana use should be treated primarily as a public-health issue. Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), the nation's leading anti-legalization group, says that it “seeks to establish a rational policy” for marijuana use and possession that “no longer relies only on the criminal justice system to address people whose only crime is smoking or possessing a small amount of marijuana.”
Obama has been hesitant throughout his second term to push for one approach or the other. His Justice Department has created a policy explicitly allowing states to legalize marijuana as they see fit, but he has made no effort to alter the strict federal prohibition on marijuana that complicates any effort to create a legal nationwide marijuana industry.
Pro-legalization advocates are worried that the current Justice Department policy of noninterference on marijuana legalization could be reversed by an incoming Trump administration stocked with harsh critics of such legalization. Trump himself has said that the matter should be left up to the states.
In the Rolling Stone interview, Obama hinted that he may be more vocal on the issue once he leaves office. “I will have the opportunity as a private citizen to describe where I think we need to go” on marijuana, he said.