President Barack Obama, in an interview Friday, made statements on the issue of marijuana legalization which, reiterating the President’s recent interview statements on the matter, support marijuana legalization with caution.
CNN interviewer Jake Tapper raised the question of marijuana legalization with the President as a “big issue” in the U.S., citing an interview Obama gave to the New Yorker published Jan. 19 in which the President, as Tapper put it, thought the drug was a bad habit but was not worse than drinking. Tapper put it to the President that such a position contradicts the official Obama administration policy and asked Obama if the President had either spoken “too casually” with David Remnick, the New Yorker interviewer, or the President was considering reclassifying marijuana so that the drug would no longer be a Schedule 1 narcotic under the U.S. Controlled Substances Act.
President Obama responded by immediately deferring judgement to the Congress, whose job it is to find what drugs are and are not Schedule 1 narcotics. Laws such as those dealing with Schedule 1 narcotics are not something the Obama administration can just “start changing,” the President said.
Tapper tried to interrupt to say that he thought it was the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) who was able to change the way drug crimes are handled. Tapper also tried to ask the President if he would support a move to legalize. The President corrected Tapper, saying that legalization was not under the DEA’s authority, but that “there are laws undergirding those determinations.” The President did not directly answer as to whether he would support legalization. Obama instead put the issue in the context of a “broader picture” and stated that his real concern regarding marijuana was that it caused problematic, harsh criminal penalties for users and sometimes led to racially disparate sentencing.
The President stated that he wants to “deal with some of the criminal penalty issues” so that marijuana can be “tackled” in the same way the President wanted to see alcohol, cigarettes and harder drugs tackled–as a “public health problem and challenge.” The motive Obama gave for tackling these problems was his desire for Americans to try to keep American kids from getting into drug habits in the first place.
Obama cited science and pointed to the results of the current method of dealing with marijuana users in America as support for his statements. Obama said he stood by the belief about which he spoke in the New Yorker interview last month–a belief he thought was supported by the scientific evidence–that marijuana problems are comparable to alcohol problems in that the individual users of these drugs will sometimes abuse the drug. Obama pointed out that the current method employed by the government to deal with marijuana users–a particular incarceration model–has not produced the kinds of results that were set out for it, especially when used to deal with marijuana users.
“But I do offer a cautionary note,” said the President as he made his only point in the interview against marijuana legalization. The President warned that people who think just simply legalizing marijuana will be an answer to all the problems that surround the drug should “start asking themselves some tough questions, too.” The President warned that if marijuana was simply legalized and big corporations with vast distribution abilities were suddently given the green light to “peddle” marijuana, abuse of the drug–referred to by the President as his main concern–would be more frequent and serious.
Schedule 1 narcotics are classified by three requirements. The drug must have a high potential for abuse, must have no currently accepted medical treatment use, and the use of the drug must lack accepted safety measures under medical supervision. Addictive drugs have been legislated against in America since the early 1900s. The current law dealing with Schedule 1 narcotics is the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). The act was passed by Congress in 1970 and signed into law by President Nixon.
The DEA was established in 1973 to enforce controlled substance regulations. The DEA may investigate or reinvestigate drugs by their own initiative or in response to petitions by other groups. The DEA has the authority to propose that a drug be controlled under any of its schedules, but this proposal is the final step after the DEA has gathered scientific and medical information from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and sometimes other medical and scientific experts. The findings of the HHS in particular are binding on the FDA, to the point where the HHS can technically legalize a substance unilaterally. Congress, who reviews proposals for legalization, has so far rejected all bills that aim at legislating marijuana. The CSA also provides an avenue for administrative rescheduling of marijuana through the U.S. Attorney General.
The President, in his Friday CNN interview, made comments in support of marijuana legalization with caution, but did not specify what kind of caution would be appropriate. Current processes have been shown to involve great caution in the form of time. The review process for a drug under the CSA has been lengthy in past petitions, taking 22 years, seven years, and nine years in previous instances. A 2013 petition is pending currently. This slow process is seen as one of the difficulties in changing marijuana legislation.
By Day Blakely Donaldson