A lame duck with nothing to lose but his legacy, Barack Obama is now in the peculiar position of being America's most cannabis-friendly president. He has earned this title passively: by doing nothing.
Obama did nothing when Washington and Colorado legalized recreational cannabis in 2012. He did nothing when Oregon and Alaska did the same in 2014. But in 2010, when recreational marijuana was legal nowhere and when drug agents seized a record number of marijuana plants, Obama's Justice Department also did next to nothing — vague threats of jail time and some threatening letters to property owners — which, at the time, was enough to help kill legalization in California and to slow down the growth of the state's weed industry for a couple of years. Never have a few pieces of certified mail had more effect.
Now, with venture capital sinking serious skin into the weed game and as much as a third of the country poised to vote on expansion of legalization and medical marijuana access, it's as if none of that happened. Now, there is increasing talk in some drug reform circles that Obama will break with tradition and do something on drug reform in his last months in office.
A few months ago, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson openly guessed Obama would remove cannabis from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, the country's inventory of the most highly addictive chemicals with no known medical use (two things that do not apply to cannabis), and put it into Schedule II. (For context: LSD, MDMA, and psilocybin are Schedule I; cocaine and methamphetamine are Schedule II. For more context: Johnson was recently CEO of a publicly traded cannabis company.)
That set off rumors Obama would make the move before a recent special session of the United Nations General Assembly on drugs. (He didn't.) Then in early April, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and seven other Senate Democrats received a letter from the DEA — which has in the past been sued, unsuccessfully, to reschedule cannabis — in which the agency said it could decide by July whether to reschedule. A tepid promise to possibly do something, like a slacker's vow to finally start a long-gestating novel, but it was pounced upon as a major step by some drug reform activists. When you're starving, even a table scrap can feel like a feast.
Most recently, gains from activists through smoking marijuana outside of Obama's house have fueled the speculation.
On April 2, about 100 people, including some of the activists from DCMJ — the crew behind Washington, D.C.'s legalization law — gathered outside the White House to get stoned as an act of protest. (Public smoking is still illegal in D.C., even though possession and cultivation are allowed.)
Poo-pooed by other drug reform activists as a gauche display, the demonstration earned Adam Eidinger, one of DCMJ's cofounders, a meeting on Monday with staffers in the White House.
But though the meeting was in the White House physically, it wasn't with White House staffers, but rather bureaucrats from the Office of National Drug Control Policy (who do not work under Obama). Nor was there any kind of negotiation — just half an hour where ONDCP staffers sat, listened, and took notes. (Other drug activists are also poo-pooing Eidinger for sharing details of meetings federal operatives prefer to keep “off-the-record.”)
Even though the officials asked him no questions and promised him nothing — slowly, a pattern emerges — just a mere opportunity to be heard was a victory, Eidinger told me.
“By their body language, I could tell they were sincerely listening,” he said. “I felt good after leaving the meeting — other meetings, I've walked out feeling horrible.”
Good feelings and the hope that the pages of notes taken by the ONDCP staffers (neither of whom would give Eidinger a card) would not be immediately recycled are, for now, the lone results from the meet.
As for a likely next step? Though he has commuted some absurdly lengthy prison terms for nonviolent drug offenses, nobody believes Obama is suddenly calling his own meetings in the Oval Office to demand movement on drug reform.
Maybe this is better. Had Obama moved on scheduling — say if he moved cannabis to Schedule II — it would actually accomplish very little. It would still be illegal. You could still be fired from a job for using it, and banks would still be barred from dealing with cannabis businesses.
“I don't want members of the public thinking [rescheduling] is a great victory and now marijuana is legal,” said Michael Collins, deputy director of the Drug Policy Alliance's Office of National Affairs in Washington, D.C. “It does not affect the legality of marijuana or medical marijuana. … It doesn't even really do that much for research.”
Right now, it's still official White House policy to oppose marijuana legalization — another thing Schedule II wouldn't fix, even if the White House does nothing to enforce the policy.
For now, Eidinger is holding out for something — another meeting. And if he doesn't get it, or if the White House is slow in scheduling it, Eidinger has vowed another smoke-out: this one for May 20 – the birthday of original drug czar Harry Anslinger.
“I told them, 'We're going to expect a quick response,' ” he said. ” 'Otherwise, the protests will continue.' “