In a wide-ranging interview with Rolling Stone magazine, President Obama appeared to soften his views on marijuana legalization by saying it should be treated “as a public-health issue, the same way we do with cigarettes or alcohol.”
The outgoing president also chided the Drug Enforcement Administration’s unwillingness to change with times. When asked about removing the Schedule I status of cannabis, Obama said: “Typically how these classifications are changed are not done by presidential edict 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.”
In Obama’s eight years in office, marijuana policy has gradually shifted toward legalization. Eight states now allow legal recreational use for adults and 29 states have medical programs in place, defying the DEA’s position.
Obama compared the marijuana legalization progress to the same-sex marriage issue:
If you will recall, what happened was, first, very systematically, I changed laws around hospital visitation for people who were same-sex partners. I then assigned the Pentagon to do a study on getting rid of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which then got the buy-in of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and we were then able to [repeal] “don’t ask, don’t tell.” We then filed a brief on Proposition 8 out in California. And then, after a lot of groundwork was laid, then I took a position.
This is not the first time that Obama, who admitted to smoking and enjoying marijuana as a young man, has made similar comments. In a 2014 interview with the New Yorker, he said marijuana was less dangerous than alcohol “in terms of its impact on the individual consumer.” In November of this year, he told comedian Bill Maher, “I think we’re going to have to have a more serious conversation about how we are treating marijuana and our drug laws generally.”
For some legalization advocates, Obama’s comments as a lame duck are too little too late. “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,” said Tom Angell of the pro-legalization Marijuana Majority. “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.”
What happens next under President Trump remains to be seen. As for Obama? “I will have the opportunity as a private citizen to describe where I think we need to go,” he said.
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