President Barack Obama recently announced in an interview that he would consider changing federal laws banning marijuana if enough states voted to legalize the drug. Twenty-three states have laws on the books allowing for medical marijuana, while Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Washington D.C. have fully legalized recreational marijuana. Currently these states are in violation of federal law, but that may be changing.
During an interview with Vice News, President Obama spoke on several issues, including changing marijuana laws. He discussed the possibility of changing federal laws as more states vote to legalize or decriminalize this federally illegal substance. He emphasized that he would like for the federal government to decriminalize, rather than legalize, marijuana. The difference between decriminalization and legalization is important. Many municipalities around the country have local laws that decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, which means that people will not be charged or jailed for possession of personal stashes. Decriminalization does not allow for growing, selling or possessing large amounts of cannabis. The president spoke about the possibility of decriminalization as a response to states changing laws, but also as a way to reform the criminal justice system. He pointed out that there has long been too much of a crackdown on nonviolent drug users that has resulted in packed prisons and wasted tax dollars. This trend has also had a devastating effect on the lives of individuals and their families as well as communities with a lot of drug users. Minorities have suffered the most under the war on drugs. Recently, a study from the American Civil Liberties Union found that African Americans are four times as likely as Caucasians to be arrested for possessing marijuana. This is in spite of the fact that use of the drug is roughly equal across the two racial groups. In some states and regions, the discrepancy was even greater.
In the interview, the president suggested rescheduling marijuana within the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) system as a way to decriminalize it at a federal level. The drug schedules classify substances based on their potential for abuse and dependence and their usefulness for medical purposes. Marijuana is currently classified in Schedule I, which includes drugs with no acceptable medical use and with a high potential for abuse and addiction. Other drugs in Schedule I are LSD, heroin and Ecstasy. With many states legalizing marijuana for medical use and with research mounting that it does have potential for medical use, the scheduling may need to be rethought. The president is not alone in his interest in rescheduling marijuana to help decriminalize it. Three senators, Democrats Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand and Republican Rand Paul, recently introduced a bill that would put marijuana in Schedule II, alongside drugs like cocaine, oxycodone, methamphetamine, fentanyl and Adderall. The bill is a rare bipartisan agreement that the criminality and medical usefulness of marijuana need to be reevaluated. In his interview, the president stated that he was encouraged that both Democrats and more conservative Republicans were beginning to recognize that the current system isn’t working and that too many people are being locked up for minor, nonviolent drug crimes, like possession. As more states begin to change laws regarding marijuana use, incarceration rates are already declining. The federal government is behind, but is just starting to realize that the times are changing. The war on drugs isn’t working. Even the president agrees.