As President Obama’s second term draws to a close, the 44th president’s cannabis legacy paints a complicated picture: two terms marked by continual raids on state-legal cannabis businesses, a Justice Department that cautiously instructed attorneys general to take a more hands-off approach to cannabis prosecutions, and an uncertain future following the 2016 elections.
First term: Complications
President Obama was elected in 2008 following a campaign in which he hinted at an end to the failed Drug War and a new focus on currently illicit substances, cannabis in particular.
The opposite turned out to be true: The administration conducted more raids against medical cannabis facilities than had ever been carried out before.
However, the Justice Department in October 2009 – almost one year after Obama’s election – issued a memo that instilled substantial hope to cannabis activists.
The famed Ogden Memo essentially gave cover to attorneys general who opted not to prosecute individuals and institutions that dealt in the medical cannabis sphere, so long as they did so in states in which the substance was legal.
Second term: Renewed focus
Coming off his 2012 reelection win, the Obama administration continued its pattern of lofty rhetoric coupled with raids on cannabis facilities and encouraging Justice Department missives.
Hints by the Obama administration that the continued raids of state-legal cannabis facilities would cease turned out to be false: the administration began a bigger crackdown on cultivators and dispensaries than had ever been attempted.
Despite the continued raids, however, the Justice Department released another memo that offered further hope to those looking to the administration for a more liberalized approach to cannabis.
In August 2013, the Justice Department released the Cole Memo, which instructed attorneys general around the country to adhere to state laws in determining whether to prosecute individuals and institutions for cannabis-related charges.
The memo states the ways in which federal forces have often involved themselves in state matters pertaining to cannabis. It then lays out the ways in which the issue may be approached in the future,
In jurisdictions that have enacted laws legalizing marijuana in some form and that have also implemented strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems to control the cultivation, distribution, sale, and possession of marijuana, conduct in compliance with those laws and regulations is less likely to threaten the federal priorities set forth above…[C]onsistent with the traditional allocation of federal-state efforts in this area, enforcement of state law by state and local law enforcement and regulatory bodies should remain the primary means of addressing marijuana-related activity.
The landmark memo indicated that federal authorities would not intervene in state practices related to cannabis and that states were thus free to experiment with their own cannabis legalization measures.
2016 & beyond
The president appears to have further evolved on the cannabis issue, telling Rolling Stone in a recent interview,
…I do believe that treating this as a public-health issue, the same way we do with cigarettes or alcohol, is the much smarter way to deal with it… 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.
Obama’s apparent evolution on cannabis comes in the face of a presidential election that may leave his legacy in tatters, particularly on the issue of cannabis and drug policy in general.
Both the public pronouncements and the cabinet selections of President-elect Donald Trump point to an incoming administration that will have a less-than-progressive approach to cannabis.
For example, prospective Attorney General Jeff Sessions – who would hold enormous sway over how cannabis is approached by the forthcoming administration – has declared himself a staunch opponent of cannabis legalization.
The election was not an unmitigated bummer, however: Eight states voted via ballot initiatives to liberalize their laws in regards to medical and recreational cannabis, lowering the likelihood that the incoming administration will be able to mount a full-scale crackdown in the months and years to come.
Regardless, the final months of Obama’s presidency appear to resemble the past eight years as a whole: encouraging rhetoric, troubling signs, and an uncertain future for cannabis in America.