The president is on board. Last night, Barack Obama said in an interview that he supports federal recognition of medical marijuana.
“I’m on record as saying that not only do I think carefully prescribed medical use of marijuana may in fact be appropriate and we should follow the science as opposed to ideology on this issue,” the president said during the CNN special WEED 3, “but I’m also on record as saying that the more we treat some of these issues related to drug abuse from a public health model and not just from an incarceration model, the better off we’re going to be.”
Obama was speaking with CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta about a bill under consideration by the Senate that would move marijuana off the strict Schedule I list of the Controlled Substances Act. The measure would protect people in the medical marijuana industry from federal prosecution and make it far easier for scientists to conduct research on the benefits of the plant.
The President has acknowledged his own history as a marijuana user in his book Dreams From My Father. He was reportedly a ringleader in a “Choom Gang” at his Hawaii high school and chastised his friends if they didn’t inhale deeply enough.
From the start of his term, Obama indicated that he wouldn’t interfere with people acting in compliance with state law in regard to marijuana. The Department of Justice hasn’t always lived up to the promise, busting numerous medical dispensaries in California during the first few years of the Obama presidency.
However, as the years passed the administration has acted incrementally to dial back the impact of the federal government’s draconian marijuana laws. In 2013, the DOJ sent out a memo guiding prosecutors to not interfere with state-sanctioned marijuana growth, consumption and commerce, outside of certain circumstances, such as if smuggling or gun violence is involved.
Last year, the president said that weed is less harmful than alcohol “in terms of its impact on the individual consumer.” His administration also declined to challenge bills in the four states and counting that have legalized marijuana for recreational use.
Currently, the Drug Enforcement Agency is also considering removing marijuana from Schedule I, an action that could take place whether or not Congress moves forward with its bill.
Obama’s words are another indication that change is on the horizon. And even if the president isn’t going to be first on the train to promote pot smoking — he told VICE News earlier this year that cannabis “shouldn’t be young people’s biggest priority” — he noted that continued criminalization is not the correct path, regardless of whether one buys into the notion of marijuana being harmful or not.
“One of the great victories of this country has been our ability to reduce incidences of smoking, increase the incidences of seat belt use,” Obama said. “You know, we save tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of lives every single year. We didn’t throw anybody in jail; we just made sure that they were well-informed and if somebody has an addiction, we made sure that we made it easy for them to get help. And I think we need to re-emphasize that approach, because we don’t want to encourage our kids to engage in drug use, but there are going to be more effective ways than, too often, the approach we’re taking today.”
Advocates applauded the president’s announcement as a good first step. “I’d agree with President Obama that we should look at how we’ve reduced cigarette smoking rates to historic lows, and apply those same tools to marijuana,” Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, said to The Huffington Post. “That would require moving marijuana out of the Controlled Substances Act’s list of schedules altogether, just like tobacco, and instead using taxes, honest education and sensible regulations. That’s what’s working in Colorado now, and what every major poll shows the majority of Americans are ready to do.”