Barack Obama called for re-thinking the federal government’s stance on marijuana, and said that the drug should be treated as a “public health” issue, in a recent interview with The Rolling Stone.
“It is untenable over the long term for the Justice Department or the DEA to be enforcing a patchwork of laws, where something that’s legal in one state could get you a 20-year prison sentence in another,” Obama told The Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner.
Obama said that while he doesn’t believe that legalization is a “panacea,” he thinks that marijuana should be treated as a public health issue similar to cigarettes and alcohol.
There’s already a thriving commercial market for marijuana in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, and seven more states, including California, voted to legalize marijuana in various forms on November 8.
At the federal level, however, marijuana is still classified as a Schedule I drug, meaning that it has no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.
Obama stressed that whatever his position, de-scheduling marijuana is not something he can do by “presidential edict.”
“Typically how these classifications are changed are not done by presidential edict but are done either legislatively or through the DEA,” Obama said. “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.”
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The DEA passed up the opportunity to re-schedule marijuana in August, after they were forced to respond to a widely-circulated petition.
Obama likened the debate around marijuana reform to same-sex marriage — change happens incrementally at first.
“There’s something to this whole states-being-laboratories-of-democracy and an evolutionary approach,” Obama said. “You now have about a fifth of the country where this is legal.”
While marijuana advocates welcomed Obama’s comments, some say he should have taken more action on the issue during his presidency.
“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,” Tom Angell, of the pro-legalization group Marijuana Majority told Business Insider. “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.”
Groups on the other side of the debate point to Trump’s pick for secretary of health and human services, Tom Price, as evidence that the president-elect will not make any moves to soften the federal government’s stance on marijuana reform.
“It appears that Trump is picking people who are pretty anti-marijuana,” Kevin Sabet, the president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana told Business Insider. “HHS [health and human services] plays a big role in drug prevention and I think that what we need is more awareness and prevention around marijuana, so this pick is encouraging.”
Obama, for his part, said that he’ll use his profile as a private citizen to move the needle on marijuana reform after he leaves office.
“I will have the opportunity as a private citizen to describe where I think we need to go,” Obama told The Rolling Stone. “This is a debate that is now ripe, much in the same way that we ended up making progress on same-sex marriage.”