President Barack Obama will be remembered as a progressive on issues like healthcare reform and same-sex marriage. But his official stance on cannabis hasn't moved toward liberalizing America's prohibition laws. Indeed, his views are strikingly similar to those of current Republican presidential candidates. According to the White House's website,
"The Administration steadfastly opposes legalization of marijuana and other drugs because legalization would increase the availability and use of illicit drugs, and pose significant health and safety risks to all Americans, particularly young people."
This is a strongly worded statement in favor of prohibition, but in reality, Obama is actually passing the buck on to Congress and individual states to take leadership on the issue.
On Jan. 28, Obama attended a House retreat for Democrats in Baltimore, where Rep. Steve Cohen says he asked the president about changing the federal drug schedule - something Obama can do via executive order.
Right now, cannabis is listed alongside heroin and LSD as a Schedule I drug, which means it is highly addictive and has no medical value, according to the federal government. Changing it to Schedule II would allow it to be recognized and studied as medicine.
But Obama poured cold water on the idea: "On marijuana, he gave the same answer as when I asked him seven years ago: 'If you get me a bill, and get it on my desk, I'll probably sign it,' " Cohen said.
"There are some in the Democratic Party who have urged the president to take this kind of action. The president's response was, 'If you feel so strongly about it, and you believe there is so much public support for what it is that you're advocating, then why don't you pass legislation about it and we'll see what happens.'"
As a result, the administration is forcing states to take a similar "wait and see" approach when liberalizing their cannabis laws. But for them, it's a matter of passing legislation and waiting to see if federal agents enforce prohibition.
Right now, a rider in the federal budget is restraining the DEA from enforcing federal law in states that have legalized medical marijuana. That rider must be extended with each budget, so doctors, patients and others involved in the medical cannabis industry are left to worry if they'll suddenly receive an unwanted visit from federal agents if the rider is dropped.
Federal law leaves legal states vulnerable
Things are even more precarious in the so-called "legal states," says Sam Méndez, Executive Director of the University of Washington's Cannabis Law & Policy Project. "Cannabis is still federally illegal, so all legal states are technically gray market," he told Civilized.
And while the Obama administration has pledged not to interfere with a state's marijuana laws, that promise offers little protection:
"It's all well and good to respect states' rights until a US attorney goes rogue," Patrick Nightingale of Pittsburgh NORML told Civilized. "We've seen that in California, we've seen that in Oregon. The hands-off approach is meaningless unless you tell the U.S. attorney general to back off and respect states' rights."
The legal states are also at the mercy of whomever takes over the White House in 2017. Republican presidential candidates such as Chris Christie and Ben Carson have already pledged to intensify the War on Drugs if elected. And without a law protecting a state's right to legalize, they would have the authority to resume the enforcement of federal laws.
If Obama remains steadfast in refusing to take leadership on this issue, backsliding into prohibition could become a postscript to his presidential legacy.
Here's a clip from the press briefing: