Barack Obama was America’s first black president and America’s first Generation X president, yes, but he was more than that: He was the first president to have unquestionably been, even briefly, a legitimate stoner. The time “Barry” Obama spent hanging with the Choom Gang back on Oahu, intercepting joints mid-session and hotboxing Volkswagen vans, helps Obama’s cool factor—and proved beyond a doubt that if marijuana is a gateway drug, the gateway can lead to the White House—but it also gave drug-policy reform advocates hope.
Here, at last, was a guy who gets it. Here’s a president that gets that cannabis isn’t the big deal federal prohibition makes it out to be; gets that the drug war wrecks the lives of kids, poor people, and people of color for no good reason; and gets to correct all of the above while in the White House. And indeed, when Obama exits the White House in January, he’ll leave behind a landscape that is unrecognizable with regards to cannabis reform.
In 2008, California’s medical-marijuana industry was visible and vibrant but not on Wall Street’s radar, just a handful of other states had medical cannabis programs, and the idea of retail stores where anyone over 21 could come in and buy a joint felt far, far into the future. And now? Sixty-five million people live in the eight states where recreational cannabis is legal, medical marijuana is legal in some form in 26 states, and the multibillion-dollar cannabis industry is in the portfolios of institutional investors all over the country.
These are victories that would have thrilled most activists if you told them what the next eight years had in store for their pet issue. But what did Obama have to do with all of this, and what can the marijuana movement thank him for? In a word: Nothing. The best Obama did for weed was stand aside and do nothing—because when the federal government did choose to get involved, it wasn’t good.
To his credit, Obama the candidate never promised marijuana legalizers much in the first place. On the campaign trail, he expressed support for medical marijuana if prescribed in the same manner by a doctor as other prescription drugs—which, conveniently, it cannot be as long as federal prohibition stands.
He did draw a distinction between the Clinton and the Bush years, when doctors recommending the drug got in trouble and when federal agents raided six-plant gardens—this would not and could not be a top priority for a Justice Department in the age of terror—but he definitely didn’t say he’d do anything for the movement, good or bad.
See for yourself:
Today, Obama is credited for not interfering with the states where voters chose to break with the Richard Nixon-era federal policy that outlaws cannabis in all its forms. He did not do anything to subvert Colorado or Washington state’s first-in-the-nation legalization votes, and he did not do anything after to prevent the creation of a regulated-and-taxed recreational marijuana marketplace.
In short, he did nothing—and cannabis was very glad.
But before that, he did do something—and it wasn’t good.
In 2010, federal agents seized a record number of marijuana plants in California, which was at that time the unquestioned national leader in all things weed. That same year, with the first legalization measure with a legitimate shot at passing featured on California’s ballot, federal prosecutors informed cities and counties preparing to make money off of weed that they could face prison time.
And a few weeks before the actual vote, then-Attorney General Eric Holder announced the federal Justice Department would “vigorously enforce” the Controlled Substances Act if California legalized weed. In stark contrast to the scene six years later, no major politicians or media outlets came out in support, and Prop. 19 lost by six percentage points.
The following year, U.S. attorneys across the state started sending letters to the landlords of licensed medical-marijuana dispensaries, informing them that if the weed clubs weren’t shut down, the properties could be forfeited and the owners penalized with fines or jail time. It was a bluff—no properties were ever actually seized—but it was enough to shutter dispensaries all over the state and set the industry back a few years.
The legal leg the cannabis industry stands on is a literal piece of paper, a memo from a Justice Department official that suggests state-legal cannabis isn’t something that federal law enforcement should spend too much time on. That isn’t much. And on the other federal issues where the marijuana industry needs help—the ability to have a bank account; the privilege of claiming business expenses on federal taxes; the chance at interstate commerce—the federal government, under Barack Obama, has not moved an inch.
Banks still refuse deposits from marijuana businesses, forcing them to deal in cash; the IRS is still demanding back taxes from cannabis outlets who failed to comply with a section of the tax code that punishes them with the same stick intended for cocaine dealers; cannabis outlets in California or Colorado seeking to expand to other states have to jump through a serious of ridiculous hoops, helping Canadian marijuana firms become the continent’s leaders in weed. On all of these issues, what did Obama do? You guessed it: Nothing.
Obama recently granted Rolling Stone an exit interview, in which publisher Jann Wenner touched upon many parts of the 44th president’s legacy. Coming a few weeks after the election of Donald Trump and when four more states legalized cannabis, Obama touched on both, and stated—for the first time as president, with a little less than two months in the office to go—that he feels marijuana should be decriminalized. Or, if you really parse his words, that marijuana should be outright legalized.
“I am not somebody who believes that legalization is a panacea,” he said. “But I do believe that treating this as a public-health issue, the same way we do with cigarettes or alcohol, is the much smarter way to deal with it.”
But, as Reason pointed out, Obama will wait until he is a relatively powerless private citizen and not in the White House to voice his opinion on how this should be done.
“I will have the opportunity as a private citizen to describe where I think we need to go. But in light of these referenda passing, including in California, I’ve already said…that it is untenable over the long term for the Justice Department or the DEA to be enforcing a patchwork of laws, where something that’s legal in one state could get you a 20-year prison sentence in another. So this is a debate that is now ripe, much in the same way that we ended up making progress on same-sex marriage.”
Marijuana was never going to be Barack Obama’s signature issue—not in 2009, when he inherited two foreign wars and the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression; not in 2010-2012, when he was dealing with a Congressional revolt, trying to pass the Affordable Care Act, and stave off Mitt Romney; and not from 2013 to now, when most of his time and energy was spent, possibly in vain, to ensure that at least some of his legacy would survive a hostile and obstructionist Congress. In this context, the hopes that Obama would spend political capital on rescheduling cannabis at the federal level or reforming banking were far-fetched—especially when the states were doing most of the work.
This is the Choomer-in-Chief’s legacy on his onetime herbal friend and companion: At worst, he slowed things down. At best, he stood aside and watched as the world changed.
He wasn’t much of a friend, but he wasn’t much of an obstacle, either. If you’re a weedhead, you can thank Obama for the greatest gift he gave marijuana: nothing.