Barack Obama, the former-pot-smoking president, began his second term as something of a hero for backers of the nation’s marijuana legalization movement.
He’ll soon leave office as a total bummer.
In 2013, Obama’s Justice Department said it would allow Washington state and Colorado to proceed with recreational marijuana sales. Obama said he had bigger fish to fry.
It seemed only fitting for a president who loved to smoke pot as a teen growing up in Hawaii, one who delighted pot lovers by proclaiming in 2006 that, unlike Bill Clinton, he had smoked marijuana and inhaled quite frequently. After all, he said, that was the point.
On Thursday night, though, legalization advocates had grown weary of the 44th president. They scheduled a protest to throw marijuana seeds on the White House lawn to show their dismay at the Drug Enforcement Administration’s rejection of a petition to remove marijuana from its place on the list of most dangerous drugs.
The decision quashed the hopes of legalizers who thought it would be Obama who would finally remove marijuana from the list that includes LSD and heroin.
The long-awaited ruling by the DEA means the federal government’s official position is that marijuana has absolutely no medical use. That runs counter to the decisions made by 25 states – and the District of Columbia – that have already approved use of the drug as medicine.
The DEA’s ruling shocked legalization supporters.
“While I haven’t read it, the outcome puts the DEA totally out of touch with the Justice Department, current research, the medical profession, patients and the public,” said Christine Gregoire, a Democratic former governor of Washington state.
Her successor, Democrat Jay Inslee, also expressed dismay. “I am disappointed that we don’t have a national standard for at least medical marijuana,” he said. But he said the DEA decision would have no impact in his state. “Following the will of Washington state voters, we will continue to maintain a well-regulated adult-use marijuana system and continue to allow patients to have access for necessary medicinal purposes.”
In 2011, Gregoire and Republican former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee filed a petition asking the DEA to reclassify marijuana, a move that would have allowed pharmacies to fill pot prescriptions. Gregoire said it was “very disappointing” that the DEA had failed to recognize that the drug had any therapeutic value.
Mason Tvert, a spokesman for the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project, called the DEA’s decision “mind-boggling.”
“It is intellectually dishonest and completely indefensible,” he said. “Not everyone agrees marijuana should be legal, but few will deny that it is less harmful than alcohol and many prescription drugs.”
As protesters made plans for the emergency demonstration in front of the White House, organizers said the event would include “Tone Deaf Karaoke,” featuring poorly sung songs to mark the Obama administration’s record in changing the pot laws.
“If you don’t want to sing, bring your pots and pans so Malia will hear you,” the DC Cannabis Campaign said in advertising the event, taking a dig at Wednesday’s news that Obama’s 18-year-old daughter, Malia, may have smoked marijuana at the Lollapalooza music festival in Chicago. Another protest, described as “a mass mobilization,” is planned for Sept. 24 in Washington.
Obama had always said a decision to reschedule marijuana should be left to Congress.
He made no comment Thursday as the DEA announced its decision in the Federal Register, publishing a letter sent to Inslee and the current governor of Rhode Island, Democrat Gina Raimondo.
In the letter, DEA acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg said the agency had concluded that marijuana still had a high potential for abuse, had no accepted medical use and was not safe even under medical supervision.
“The petition is, therefore, hereby denied,” Rosenberg told the governors.
Rosenberg elaborated in an interview with National Public Radio, saying he’d given “enormous weight” to advice from the Food and Drug Administration.
“This decision isn’t based on danger,” said Rosenberg, who was appointed by Obama last year. “This decision is based on whether marijuana, as determined by the FDA, is a safe and effective medicine. And it’s not.”
The decision means that the Obama administration is now backing the same policy approved in 1970, when Congress and President Richard Nixon teamed up to pass the Controlled Substances Act, signaling the start of the nation’s war on drugs.
The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws said the DEA had chosen to reaffirm a “flat-earth position,” while the National Cannabis Industry Association said the ruling “flies in the face of objective science and overwhelming public opinion.”
Marijuana opponents hailed the decision and predicted it would stop the momentum of the nation’s legalization movement.
“To be honest, it vindicates us,” said Kevin Sabet, the president of the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, one of the few who had predicted the DEA would not reschedule the drug.
Sabet said the ruling would “raise eyebrows in the legalization community” among those who had pressured the DEA to reschedule marijuana but added: “This now sets them way back.”
Legalization backers had hoped that Obama would end his presidency with a push for full-scale legalization. But with federal laws still on the books banning the drug, states will continue to operate in a legal gray area.
“President Obama always said he would let science – and not ideology – dictate policy, but in this case his administration is upholding a failed drug-war approach instead of looking at real, existing evidence that marijuana has medical value,” said Tom Angell, the chairman of Marijuana Majority, another pro-legalization group. He said states should be allowed to set their own policies, “unencumbered by an outdated ‘Reefer Madness’ mentality that some in law enforcement still choose to cling to.”
In 2015, the DEA spent $18 million to destroy marijuana plants under its “cannabis eradication” program. And Rosenberg angered pot advocates last year when he dismissed the possibility that smoking marijuana had any medical value, calling the idea “a joke.”
On Capitol Hill, Oregon Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer said the DEA’s decision was “not right or fair” with a majority of Americans now backing full legalization.
“It is imperative, as part of the most progressive administration on marijuana in history, that the DEA work to end the failed prohibition of marijuana,” Blumenauer said.
With Obama set to leave office in January, the DEA’s ruling will up the pressure on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to follow through on her promise to reschedule marijuana if she moves to the White House.
She’s also running on a Democratic Party platform, approved last month, that for the first time calls on the federal government to create a “pathway” toward legalization. Clinton and her Republican opponent, Donald Trump, both have said they’d allow states to make the calls on regulating marijuana, following Obama’s lead.
The DEA did make one concession for legalization backers, saying it would remove the government’s monopoly that now allows only one institution – the University of Mississippi – to grow marijuana for research purposes.
“As long as folks abide by the rules – and we’re going to regulate that – we want to expand the availability, the variety, the type of marijuana available to legitimate researchers,” Rosenberg said.