“Change” is President Obama's mantra — and it applies to drug policy too. From 2009 to 2011, his policy on marijuana law enforcement has changed drastically. And today, it seems as if that policy has changed again.
In an interview with Barbara Walters released today, the president announced that in states where marijuana is legal, recreational marijuana users will not be a “top priority” of federal law enforcement officials prosecuting the war on drugs. "It would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined that it's legal," he said.
In 2008, then Senator Obama said in an interview with Oregon’s Mail Tribune that “I’m not going to be using Justice Department resources to circumvent state laws on [medical marijuana].” But after the 2008 election, Obama’s Justice Department began raiding medical marijuana dispensaries and growers, conducting 71 medical marijuana dispensary raids in just one day.
In June 2011, the Justice Department released the Cole Memo, which stated, “Persons who are in the business of cultivating, selling, or distributing marijuana, and those who knowingly facilitate such activities, are in violation of the Controlled Substances Act, regardles of state law.” (Emphasis added) The memo goes on to say, “State laws or local ordinances are not a defense to civil enforcement of federal law.” This seems to imply that when state law conflicts with federal law in regards to drugs, federal law will reign supreme.
Thus, from 2009 to 2011, we see a shift in the administration's policy from prioritizing state marijuana law to prioritizing federal marijuana law. After the president’s comments that were aired today, the he seems to be shifting back to supremacy of state marijuana law. So why the change?
First, Colorado was a swing state in 2012, and will most-likely be a swing state in 2016. If the president were to arrest marijuana smokers en masse, Democrats could lose the state to Republicans in the 2016 election.
The second reason for this change in marijuana enforcement is that leading democrats have pressured the president to stop the crackdown on marijuana. Congressman Barney Frank (D - Mass.) said in an interview with The Hill that Obama is making a “grave mistake” by cracking down on medical marijuana dispensaries in states where medical marijuana is legal. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D - Calif.) reiterated this sentiment in a statement condemning raids in California, saying that this is a “states’ rights issue.”
Third, public opinion does not support the federal government’s enforcement of anti-marijuana laws in states where marijuana is legal. Gallup reports that 64% of Americans believe that the federal government should not enforce anti-marijuana laws in these states.
These three happenings have given the president good reason to change his stance on marijuana policy to one that is more friendly to states’ rights. Thanks to the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, the president has a choice to make: Which law takes precedence, federal or state?