The White House’s chief spokesman is leaving open the door to a big last-minute marijuana move before President Obama leaves office.
Asked in briefing on Thursday about Obama’s recent far-reaching cannabis comments, Press Secretary Josh Earnest said, “I don’t think the president at this point was trying to signal any specific policy change.” [Emphasis added.]
In a Rolling Stone interview published this week, Obama said marijuana should be treated like cigarettes and alcohol, criticized the DEA for being behind the times on cannabis and speculated that the legalization debate is now ripe like the conversation about marriage equality was a few years ago.
Obama separately told HBO’s Bill Maher in an interview last month that federal prohibition enforcement is “not gonna be tenable” in light of so many states opting to legalize marijuana.
Similarly, Earnest told reporters on Thursday that it is “increasingly difficult” for the DEA and other law enforcement officials to carry out federal prohibition as a growing number of states enact new cannabis laws.
“That’s something that I think the next administration is going to have to grapple with and certainly law enforcement officers in the next administration and some policymakers are going to have to sort of consider what’s the most effective way to move forward here,” he said.
But the fact that Earnest used the phrase “at this point” to qualify the statement that this president isn’t announcing any specific marijuana moves gave advocates some hope that the administration still might have something in the works before Donald Trump is inaugurated on January 20.
While Obama has largely given states room to implement their own legalization laws without federal interference, he has disappointed marijuana law reform advocates in other ways, such as by letting the DEA refuse to reclassify cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act earlier this year.
He has, however, commuted prison sentences for a relatively large number of people serving time for drug offenses. But even while Obama has used his clemency powers more than other modern presidents, the number of people he has moved to set free pales in comparison to the total number of nonviolent drug offenders who are behind bars.
A coalition of criminal justice reform advocates wrote to Obama this week urging a significant expansion of clemency during his final days in office. They want the president to go beyond reviewing pardon and commutation applications on a case-by-case basis and issue clemency to large groups of prisoners with sweeping blanket moves.
“We do not know whether the next president will support clemency efforts or criminal justice reform,” the advocates told the president. “But we do know that until January 20, you alone have the power to deliver both mercy and justice to those who deserve it.”
It is also possible that Obama could direct the attorney general to reinitiate cannabis rescheduling proceedings before leaving office, though past reviews of the drug’s Schedule I status have been quite lengthy and the final ruling would almost certainly be made by the next administration.
Trump’s pick for attorney general, U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, is an ardent opponent of marijuana law reform, as is Congressman Tom Price of Georgia, the likely next secretary of Health and Human Services. Together, the two officials would decide on any petitions to reclassify cannabis under the Trump administration.
Photo Courtesy of Allie Beckett.
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