What Will Obama Do About Marijuana?

As support for legalization grows, he has choices to make that could keep many blacks out of prison.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

(The Root) — In January 2004, then-Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama declared that “the war on drugs has been an utter failure. We need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws … we need to rethink how we’re operating in the drug war.” As president, Obama has acknowledged the high price paid by the black community, especially in urban areas, where police forces have used the drug war as an excuse to reinstate old racial codes.

President Obama’s re-election has given him the dubious honor of being in a position to right these wrongs. Nov. 6 was not just a victory for him but was also a triumph for progressive ballot initiatives: namely, the decriminalization of recreational marijuana use. This past week might very well mark the beginning of the end of the war on drugs as we know it, with recreational use of marijuana becoming legal in the state of Washington as a result of its citizens’ vote. Coloradoans approved a similar measure and established an exchange in which citizens can grow and purchase the drug for medicinal use. A recent Quinnipiac poll shows that 54 percent of Americans support legalizing the drug, while 44 percent oppose it.

As states slowly begin to decriminalize marijuana, it remains to be seen whether President Obama and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder will continue to enforce federal oversight to arrest and prosecute offenders, no matter a state’s laws. Their decision could have widespread consequences for African Americans — young men in particular. According to Human Rights Watch, whites and blacks commit drug offenses at about the same rate, but blacks are incarcerated for drug-related crimes at an overwhelmingly higher rate. And young African-American males are disproportionately targeted in police actions that amount to “trolling for young black and Latino men” to arrest, according to Queens College professor Harry Levine, who has conducted numerous studies on arrests for marijuana possession.

Is there a reason to hope that change has finally come? Maybe. Then again, maybe not.

Business as Usual?

In 2010 President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which drastically reduced the unfair disparity between crack and powder cocaine and, more important, dropped the five-year mandatory sentence for crack possession. In 2009 President Obama had vowed not to interfere with marijuana distributors and cultivators operating under state laws that sanctioned medicinal use.

But by 2011, federal agents were raiding cultivators in California — a clear departure from Obama’s initial rhetoric — and leaving in doubt the future of new state efforts to decriminalize. Just one day before Washington state’s historic legislation took full effect, Holder’s office released a statement that read, in part, “The Department of Justice is reviewing the legalization initiatives recently passed in Colorado and Washington State. The Department’s responsibility to enforce the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged. Neither States nor the Executive branch can nullify a statute passed by Congress.”

For many liberals, such a pronouncement is a warning sign that the status quo will remain intact. And for liberals who are keen to see a more progressive Obama in his second term, it raises an immediate red flag. As Katrina vanden Heuvel writes in the Washington Post, “President Obama has a choice. He could direct the Department of Justice to crack down and prevent the two states from moving forward. Or he could finally, fully embrace sensible drug laws.”