Some of our biggest stories over the past year have dealt with American politics. So for Civilized's first birthday, we reached out to Paul Armentano - Deputy Director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) - to talk about the state of cannabis in the U.S.
Here's what he had to say about President Obama's marijuana legacy, the DEA’s refusal to recognize cannabis as medicine and why cannabis consumers should fear a Trump Administration.
1. Obama's marijuana legacy
Do you think there a chance of President Obama taking action on cannabis reform before leaving office?
I don’t think this administration has ever taken an approach that is marijuana-specific. I think this administration recognizes that there are incarceration and criminal justice issues that need to be addressed in this country. That the way American drug laws are written and enforced is a part of that equation...That said, this administration has taken the attitude that states that choose to enact marijuana regulation schemes that differ from federal prohibition ought to have freedom to explore those policies free - or largely free - from federal interference.”
So if we said Obama had a cannabis legacy, it would be respecting each state's right to decide the legality of recreational marijuana.
Yeah, I would agree with that. And I wouldn’t downplay that. That’s very important. It is a different approach than the approach taken under both George W. Bush's administration and Bill Clinton's administration prior. Both clearly took steps to discourage state-led medical marijuana reform. The Obama Administration made pledges during the campaign that they would not act in that manner and they - certainly during the second term of this administration - let medical marijuana and adult-use [recreational] programs operate. Largely unfettered.
2. Why we should fear a Trump Administration
Do you think cannabis reformers should be worried about Republican nominee Donald Trump becoming president?
I personally find Trump to be terrifying on this issue. NORML is non-partisan and hasn’t stated a position one way or the other. But I think it is fair to say that a Clinton Administration will be consistent in upholding and continuing a number of Obama Administration policies. Their policy on taking a hands-off approach to states that enact changes in their marijuana laws will be one of those policies that a Clinton Administration would continue to uphold.
Trump has also said he would take a similar hands-off approach.
I think it is debatable to the degree to which a Trump Administration would follow that position because some of the statements that the candidate has made on this issue conflict with another. And he’s a candidate that is certainly known to change his positions in a fairly whimsical manner. Trump has also surrounded himself with politicians [e.g. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie] and bureaucrats that have a long history of being somewhat ardently opposed to marijuana law reform. And if they hold key positions within a Trump Administration, it is hard to believe that they would not ultimately promote policies that by and large reflect their longstanding, anti-marijuana bias.
Is it likely that they would try to roll back the gains made on marijuana reform?
People need to understand that it only takes a handful of high profile actions to send a message that has a ripple effect on both culture and politics. So it is not as if one would need to go into a state like California or Washington and shut down each and every individual state-licensed provider or dispensary. One only needs to take some high profile actions against a few to get the message out to the rest that this is probably activity that they want to voluntarily cease engaging in.
We're talking a few full-scale DEA raids of targeted businesses?
Certainly that action could be done. Such action took place under the Obama Administration in his first term, largely in California. And at that time, [these actions] had somewhat of a chilling effect [on reform]. So again, it doesn’t take much. If an administration made rolling back some of these laws a priority, they ultimately have the federal law on their side. And they have the means and the resources to do so if they choose to use them.
3. Sympathy for the DEA-vil
One of the most disappointing marijuana moments this year was the DEA's decision not to drop cannabis from a Schedule I to a Schedule II drug in the Controlled Substances Act, which would have opened the door for the government to recognize it as medicine. What do you think it will take for the DEA to reschedule cannabis?
I don’t think the DEA will reschedule cannabis. I think it’s going to take action from Congress...And I would argue that is the most appropriate fix. It was Congress who established the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. It was an act of Congress that placed cannabis in Schedule I [along with heroin]. And, arguably, it will take an act of Congress to amend the federal laws regarding cannabis. It’s their responsibility. When Congress passes a bad law or an inappropriate law, ultimately it’s Congress whose responsibility to fix those laws.
That's interesting because the DEA gets the most flack for prohibition. But the scheduling is Congress' fault, so Congress has to come up with a solution.
Yeah, because the DEA is a law enforcement agency. They’re not even a regulatory agency. So the notion that this is the DEA’s responsibility really neglects the fact that the DEA doesn’t make law, and the DEA is not a regulatory agency either. The FDA is the governing body that deals with drug regulations and drug scheduling. And Congress is the governing body that enacts legislation with regard to illicit substances.
So it's no surprise that the DEA seems opposed to marijuana reform.
I would be shocked if they were ever to take a different position. Again, they’re not a scientific body. They’re not a public health body. They’re not a regulatory body. They are a law enforcement agency. And the federal law - for better or worse - is clear. The DEA’s priority is to enforce that law - not to question it, not to amend it.
Editor's note: As Civilized celebrates one year of publishing, we're reflecting on the stories and issues that resonated most with our audience in the past 12 months. This is one of series of posts that includes founder and publisher Derek Riedle's commentary, A Year Of Elevating Cannabis Culture. You should also check out, Cannabis Is Winning Over The Hearts and Minds Of The American Public, and Cannabis: A Love (And Sex) Story.