Is the President Discovering the Political Benefits of Cannabis?

Late in his term (and on the eve of a visit to Jamaica), the former Choom Ganger finally seems to be softening toward his old friend.

A woman rolls a marijuana cigarette as photographed on August 30, 2014 in Bethpage, New York.

Photographer: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

President Barack Obama is heading to Jamaica this week. No, there’s no "Choom Gang" reunion in the works, mon. He’s visiting a conference of Caribbean nations on the way to a summit in Panama.

You could hardly be blamed for entertaining a "second term, baby!" fantasy about the president's island itinerary, though, considering some of his recent words and moves about pot—and marijuana’s evolution in American politics. Much like gay marriage, it's become a kind of wedge issue, one which may play an important role in the next cycle. And recently, the president may have signaled his intent to make use of it.

Nearly half the states have medical marijuana laws on the books, and four states and the nation’s capital now have measures that allow recreational use of marijuana by adults. As many as nine more states may have adult use measures on the ballot in 2016. Those efforts may have the broader effect of drawing young voters to the polls, which likely would benefit Democrats because younger voters tend to vote for them.

At least one Republican presidential hopeful also is engaged on the issue; Kentucky Senator Rand Paul is behind bipartisan legislation to take away the threat of federal prosecution of medical marijuana where states allow it.

Against that backdrop, Obama last week commuted federal prison sentences for 22 drug offenders who were serving time for charges on cocaine, meth, heroin and, in one case, a life sentence for conspiracy to grow and distribute thousands of marijuana plants.

In a personal letter to those whose sentences he commuted, Obama wrote that “you have the capacity to make good choices” and “I believe in your ability to prove the doubters wrong. So good luck, and Godspeed.” This has been in the works for some time. Obama has been increasingly speaking out against racial and socioeconomic drug sentencing disparities and pledging to right that wrong.

His Justice Department has given states that adopt legalization measures the space to experiment with them. And he’s launched a clemency initiative to encourage people sentenced under what they consider “outdated laws” to seek commuted sentences.

Beyond the criminal justice aspect, the second-term president has become more comfortable talking about marijuana use as a part of the American experience.

On ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live last month, Obama, 53, who long ago acknowledged smoking pot in his youth but never glorified it, joked easily about relating to Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the 1982 film classic featuring the stoned surfer character, Jeff Spicoli, saying, "I lived it, man, I didn't just see it."

This all comes at a time when Americans have become far more accepting of marijuana for medical purposes and even for recreational uses. The Gallup Poll found that tipping point in October 2013, when 58 percent of Americans said they favor legalization, up from 50 percent in 2011, 31 percent in 2001 and just 12 percent in 1969. Gallup’s 2013 findings came months after Washington and Colorado adopted their measures. By last November, voters’ enthusiasm had waned a bit but still constituted a majority, 51 percent, Gallup found. Alaska and Oregon, as well as the District of Columbia, have since adopted their own measures. When it comes to legalizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes, 23 states and D.C. allow it. Polls show strong majorities of public support for medical marijuana use.

Obama’s interview with the New Yorker's David Remnick published in January previewed much of his steps this year. He said that “middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do” with blacks and Latinos disproportionately punished. He said it's "important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished." He called it a “bad habit” and “vice” and compared it with his cigarette use, while saying. "I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol,” and, when pressed, saying he thought it less dangerous than alcohol.

The line Obama seemed to be trying to draw was one between punishing its use and facilitating it.

"It’s not something I encourage, and I’ve told my daughters I think it’s a bad idea, a waste of time, not very healthy,” he said.

That all leads to the ultimate question for many of the activists in the legalization community, which is: Will Obama pave the way for federal legalization?

So far, the answer has been no. In a video segment in December for Huffington Post, Dan Pfeiffer, then a senior adviser to Obama, the president had “nothing” planned on the legalization front beyond working through the Justice Department to reduce drug sentencing disparities and giving states that have adopted their own laws to legalize marijuana use by adults some “deference.”

And in a March interview with VICE, Obama indicated any federal change would be up to Congress, not him, and shouldn’t be a priority for America’s youth.

“I think it’s largely about politics,” said Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “I don’t necessarily think the president has evolved in his position as much as he has become more confident in his ability to speak publicly in favor of marijuana reform as part of broader criminal justice reform. That confidence comes from a recognition that these policies he is articulating in favor of are supported by a majority of the voters.”

Taylor West of the National Cannabis Industry Association in Denver, said while Obama’s rhetoric on marijuana has “certainly evolved” there is “still a pretty wide gulf between the things that he says and the policies that would rationally stem from them. There are thousands of people wrapped up in the criminal justice system due to our drug laws.”

Looking past Obama's presidency, West says the 2016 implications are “fascinating.”

The states that already have adopted measures to allow marijuana use under various limitations “are still technically in violation of federal law,” she said. California, Arizona, Nevada, Missouri, Michigan, Massachusetts, Maine and perhaps Ohio may consider measures in 2016, and Floridians will likely vote again on allowing medicinal marijuana after the most recent push fell just shy.

Still, West said, the industry exists in an environment in which a new attorney general “could shut it all down.” At the same time, advocates are betting against that because of the wave of public opinion in their favor, especially among younger Americans. “You begin to see that domino effect, more states move forward and the sky doesn’t fall.”

“I'd be hard pressed to think that you could have this level of a national discourse taking place where we have as many as eight or nine states voting on this issue during a presidential election year and not have the presidential candidates feel obligated to address this issue and address it seriously, says NORML’s Armentano.

These changing attitudes, he says, also are giving other nations that have treaties with the U.S. more comfort in re-examining their own laws.

Despite Jamaica’s reputation as a pot-friendly culture, marijuana use and possession was illegal until February, when a law went into effect to decriminalize possession of up to 2 ounces, legalize religious use (Hello, Rastafarians!) and cultivation of small numbers of plants and pave the way for more rules governing medical use.

Jamaican officials also said last month that the nation wants to lead an effort in the United Nations to study amending international treaties to relax the drug classification of marijuana.

“What's significant is that the Jamaican parliament for decades indicated that this was something they wanted to do but they refrained from doing so because they perceived that there would be retribution from the United States if they moved forward with such a plan,” Armentano says. “I don't think it is a coincidence that at a time when this administration appears to be evolving in its marijuana policies domestically that we see a nation like Jamaica move forward with changing its own policies.” 

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