As Obama embarks on the third year of his second term, here are some of the ways in which Obama has begun to deliver on his promises of a more rational, less punitive approach to psychoactive substances. Obama's most significant drug policy accomplishment may be letting states go their own way on marijuana legalization. Even if our next president is a Republican drug warrior, he will have a hard time reversing that decision, especially given the GOP’s lip service to federalism.
A year of legalized recreational marijuana hasn't changed many Coloradans' minds on the groundbreaking shift — though more than one-third say the state's reputation has taken a hit, according to a SurveyUSA poll done for The Denver Post. More than 90 percent of the respondents who voted in the 2012 election on Amendment 64 — the measure allowing adults to legally possess up to an ounce of marijuana passed 54.8 percent to 45.1 percent — said they would vote the same way today.
The 43-year-old war on drugs had never seen such a barrage of opposition as it did in 2014, with successful marijuana legalization initiatives in several U.S. states, California’s historic approval of sentencing reform for low level drug offenders and world leaders calling for the legal regulation of all drugs — all of which cement the mainstream appeal of drug policy alternatives and offer unprecedented momentum going into 2015.
As marijuana legalization took hold in Colorado, the percentage of regular cannabis users in the state jumped to the second-highest level in the US. The results come from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health and represent the average of estimates in 2012 and 2013. Researchers will get a better idea about marijuana use in Colorado once they are able to zoom in on data showing how many people use marijuana daily. A study commissioned by Colorado's Marijuana Enforcement Division this year found that people who use marijuana almost every day account for about 22 percent of cannabis users. (See also: A Year of Legal Pot)
The black market for marijuana in Colorado isn't what it used to be. Nine or 10 years ago, the narrative of illicit cannabis in the state focused on illegally grown product filtering in from Mexico, California and elsewhere. Now it seems officials and experts are more concerned about Colorado-grown marijuana infiltrating other states, a trend that is seeing a significant upward trajectory. "In a lot of ways, our legal industry has become the black market for other states," said Tom Gorman, director of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. (See also: A Year of Legal Pot)
In suing to stop marijuana legalization in Colorado, two neighboring states have embarked down an arcane legal pathway that could take years to reach a conclusion, legal scholars say. Nebraska and Oklahoma last week asked the U.S. Supreme Court to toss out portions of Colorado's pot legalization law. The states contend that Colorado's law — and especially Colorado's licensing and regulation of marijuana stores — violates the U.S. Constitution's Supremacy Clause, which says the federal law reigns when state and federal laws are in irreconcilable conflict.
The Department of Justice announced that it would let Native American tribes grow or sell marijuana on their reservations, even in states where the drug is still illegal. The decision opens the door to pockets of legal marijuana throughout the country, in addition to the growing number of states that have legalized pot or are considering doing so. There are more than 300 reservations in some 30 states. If a good portion of those tribal governments choose to grow and sell marijuana on their land, then large swaths of the country will have access to legal pot. (See also: Tribes wary of selling pot, even if feds allow it)
Opening the door for what could be a lucrative and controversial new industry on some Native American reservations, the Justice Department will tell U.S. attorneys to not prevent tribes from growing or selling marijuana on the sovereign lands, even in states that ban the practice. The new guidance, released in a memorandum, will be implemented on a case-by-case basis and tribes must still follow federal guidelines, said Timothy Purdon, the U.S. attorney for North Dakota and the chairman of the Attorney General's Subcommittee on Native American Issues.
The legal weed industry is trying to grow something else these days: political influence. The National Cannabis Industry Association has spent $60,000 lobbying Congress and federal regulators during the first nine months of this year — double its lobbying expenses for all of 2013. Its political action committee also shelled out campaign money to help politicians in tough midterm races, including Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado, where voters in 2012 approved the recreational use of marijuana.
The US Drug Enforcement Agency has now walked back statements it made about the trafficking of marijuana grown in the US to buyers in Mexico, after being met with skepticism by other law enforcement agents and experts and being pressed to divulge more information on the allegedly burgeoning problem. The claim that Mexican drug cartel members were taking US-grown weed and selling it at a premium to Mexican customers first emerged in a broader NPR report on the effects of legalized marijuana on the illicit drug trade.
Some state lawmakers say it’s high time Massachusetts hashes out a bill to legalize and tax marijuana, or, if left to voters, risk repeating the awkward ballot-to-reality rollout that’s plagued the fledgling medical marijuana industry. “It’s almost certain to be on the ballot in 2016, I think people are going to vote for it, and I think we have the responsibility to do it right,” said state Sen. Will Brownsberger, chairman of the Legislature’s judiciary committee. “I don’t think it’s wisest to leave it to whoever is writing the ballot question.”
Last week, NBC’s Today Show giddily announced an exclusive: Privateer Holdings, the Seattle marijuana company long acclaimed locally for its straight, corporate image and Ivy-League-educated bosses, was launching “the first global pot brand” based on the legacy of Bob Marley. The company is likely to start selling pot overseas, says Privateer public-relations director Zack Hutson, previously a spokesperson for Starbucks. “We’re in discussions with a distributor in Israel” – a country with a federally legal medical-marijuana system. Hutson also cites Uruguay and the Netherlands as potential early markets.
Marijuana advocates want to take their legalization drive — so far the province of Western states — to the Northeast, and they say the first state to do it here might be Maine. The Pine Tree State has a long history with cannabis — Maine voters approved medical marijuana legalization 15 years ago, becoming the first New England state to do so. Now, national marijuana advocates say, the state represents a chance for pro-marijuana forces to get a toehold in the Northeastern states they have long coveted.
The movement to end marijuana prohibition has made significant progress recently, but it could all be undone when the next president takes office in 2017. Harvard economist Jeff Miron, a supporter of marijuana policy reform, highlighted the precarious nature of state marijuana laws in an op-ed for CNN on why Congress needs to act now on federal marijuana policy. "Federal law still prohibits marijuana, and existing jurisprudence (Gonzales v. Raich 2005) holds that federal law trumps state law when it comes to marijuana prohibition," Miron wrote.
Federal law still prohibits marijuana, and existing jurisprudence (Gonzales v. Raich 2005) holds that federal law trumps state law when it comes to marijuana prohibition. So far, the federal government has mostly taken a hands-off approach to state medicalizations and legalizations, but in January 2017, the country will have a new president. That person could order the attorney general to enforce federal prohibition regardless of state law. Whether that will happen is hard to forecast. If more states legalize marijuana and public opinion continues its support, Washington may hesitate to push back.
Smoking, growing, buying, selling or merely possessing cannabis is a criminal offence, according to America's federal government. Ask the states, however, and you will get almost 50 different answers. In 13 of them possession of the drug has been decriminalised, meaning that tokers face only minor penalties if caught. In 23 it has been legalised for medical use. And in four—including, following ballot initiatives earlier this month, Alaska and Oregon—cannabis has been legalised outright. In all only 22 states, fewer than half the total, continue to treat the drug as criminal contraband under all circumstances.
It looks like the use of recreational marijuana is heading down the path of legalization across the country. Voters in Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia approved legalizing measures on Nov. 4, but with key differences. Some say a profit-driven model for legalization runs the risk of increasing marijuana use, while others argue that a regulated market is the best way to keep use safe for consumers. What’s the right approach to legalizing recreational marijuana?
California was one of the first to legalize medical marijuana in 1996, but so far hasn’t legalized it for recreational use, like Colorado, Washington. “I am not opposed to the legalization of marijuana. I’m the top cop, and so I have to look at it from a law enforcement perspective and a public safety perspective. I think we are fortunate to have Colorado and Washington be in front of us on this and figuring out the details of what it looks like when it’s legalized,” she said. “I don’t think it’s gonna take too long to figure this out,” Harris said. “I think there’s a certain inevitability about it.”