Is Obama Evolving on Marijuana?

Medicinal-marijuana activist at a California protest in 2011 (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Medicinal-marijuana activist at a California protest in 2011 (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

(The Root) — On Wednesday the Obama administration unveiled a new strategy for its drug policy. The location of the rollout was noteworthy. It took place at Johns Hopkins University, located in Baltimore, a city so ravaged by the effects of drugs that it served as the backdrop to the hit television show The Wire, which chronicled the impact of drug crime on a community.


But also noteworthy is the Obama administration's new softer tone, particularly on the issue of marijuana. It appears that the administration may finally be ready to put the so-called drug war to bed and replace it with a much more commonsense drug policy focused on rehabilitation, not incarceration.

As The Root has previously covered, despite the fact that a majority of Americans now support legalizing marijuana, the White House position on the subject has remained unchanged

According to the White House website, "Recently, there have been increasing efforts to legalize marijuana. The Obama administration has consistently reiterated its firm opposition to any form of drug legalization." The website goes on to explain: "Legalization would further burden the criminal justice system." But during a call with reporters, Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, signaled that the administration's approach to marijuana going forward would deprioritize criminalization. This is particularly significant because as states like Colorado have legalized marijuana use and sales, the attorney general and federal prosecutors have faced increasing pressure from critics to prosecute those who adhere to such laws, which, while legal at the state level, violate federal statute.

Although the president has previously gone on the record as saying that law enforcement has "bigger fish to fry" than targeting cannabis users, Kerlikowske elaborated, telling The Root that on the issue of marijuana, there is "middle ground" in terms of approach and policy. "What we've tried to do very strongly through this administration is to approach the drug problem not as a war on drugs and not as an arrest policy but neither as a legalization policy," he said. "We know that from a public health approach, legalizing drugs, thereby making them much more easily and widely available, would not be a very wise policy. But we also don't think that people — particularly those that are possessing small amounts of marijuana — that having an arrest record, that being put into the system, is particularly helpful either."

This acknowledgment — that marijuana can, in fact, uproot lives and land individuals in the criminal-justice system — is an important one, which up until now the White House has downplayed. According to the White House website:

Most people whose only crime is marijuana possession do not go to prison. A survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that 0.7 percent of all state inmates were behind bars for marijuana possession only (with many of them pleading down from more serious crimes). Other independent research has shown that the risk of arrest for each "joint," or marijuana cigarette, smoked is about one arrest for every 12,000 joints.


But because of New York's aggressive stop-and-frisk policy, marijuana laws have had a disproportionately negative impact on the lives of young men of color in the city. In his last State of the City address, Mayor Michael Bloomberg himself displayed an evolution on this issue, saying that individuals will no longer be held overnight by police for being found with small amounts of marijuana. Instead, he expressed support for a statewide effort to see such possession treated as a simple violation, not a misdemeanor.

Kerlikowske pointed to New York as an example of finding a "middle ground" on this issue. Other highlights of the Obama administration's new strategy include expanding programs like Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment, or SBIRT — which, according to the White House, "can help reduce adverse health and safety consequences from substance use"; and ensuring that the Affordable Care Act is implemented in a way that benefits those struggling with substance abuse. The act mandates that for the first time in history, insurers must cover substance-abuse treatment.


But perhaps the most significant component of the new strategy is that the White House is making a commitment to work to reform laws and restrictions that penalize drug offenders by limiting their employment, housing and educational prospects. (As The Root covered previously, students convicted of drug offenses can lose federal financial aid.)

President Obama has been credited with being open-minded enough to evolve on important issues throughout his tenure as an elected official, most notably on same-sex marriage, which he now supports. But with the African-American community being disproportionately affected by drug-related arrests and incarceration, many wonder just how much he will evolve on this issue, particularly since he has acknowledged experimenting with drugs in his youth. His administration's new strategy represents a step. It remains to be seen if he will undergo a full-fledged evolution on drug decriminalization before leaving office.


Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter