Barack Obama was elected president on the promise of change. Back in 2008, there was plenty to improve upon: a wrecked economy, two foreign wars, a fatal addiction to imported fossil fuels.
Eight years later, income inequality is rampant, American soldiers are still in Iraq and Afghanistan (and now Syria, too), and men vying to succeed Obama deny the science of carbon emissions on national television.
Instead, one of the biggest and most remarkable changes in America has been on a “fringe” issue Obama's White House has taken pains to block.
When he leaves office in less than a year, Obama will hand over a country that's unrecognizable on drug policy.
In 2008, only 12 states allowed citizens access to medical marijuana — an idea still scoffed at in concept by politicians and law enforcement even in California, where medical cannabis had been legal for almost 12 years before that. Just because cannabis was “legal” didn't mean you could safely find any, or grow your own without having your door kicked in. And legal cannabis for adults? A fantasy.
Now, eight years later, 40 states allow medical marijuana in some form, accessible by more than 200 million Americans. Adults 21-and-over in four states can buy, grow, and sell cannabis legally in four states, and another handful – including California, the biggest prize of them all — could pass legalization measures this fall. The Obama Administration has also pushed for reforms of blatantly racist sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine offenses, and the president himself visited a prison — the first leader of the world's most incarcerated state to go behind bars — to illustrate the damages caused by the country's war on drugs.
Obama's own record on weed is mixed. Yes, he said on the campaign trail that state law would be respected. Yes, his U.S. attorneys cracked down on California's medical cannabis industry hard. But he's also left Colorado and Washington alone after they legalized.
“The change in public attitude has just been a sea change,” said U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon), one of the key members of Congress's cannabis reform cabal. “Before, it was a punchline… now, in the last four years, it's really come to a head.”
On marijuana, Obama repeatedly said that the states must lead, and Washington will follow. The states have kept up their end of the bargain.
But now, in his lame duck year, with nothing to lose, Obama is done. Chuck Rosenberg, his appointee to head the DEA, called medical marijuana a “joke” this past fall. And the president does not plan to take any executive action on cannabis in 2016, press secretary John Earnest told reporters on Friday. That was after Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tennessee) said that Obama informed him and other lawmakers that rescheduling — removing marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act's list of the most dangerous and least useful drugs — would have to come from Congress.
More than anything else, rescheduling — would be the next greatest victory in the war against the war on drugs. (Remember: Both cocaine and methamphetamine are listed as less harmful than weed.) But if Obama won't do it, it's up to a Republican-controlled Congress, led by stone-faced workout fanatic Paul Ryan.
That's not such bad news. This Congress has already done more to change marijuana policy than any other since the original passage of prohibition.
It put a stop to the federal Justice Department's war on state-legal weed. A bipartisan budget amendment, authored by California Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) and Sam Farr (D-Carmel) that removed funding for DOJ actions on cannabis in states where it is legal is indeed valid and binding, as U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer ruled this past fall. And it was co-sponsored by a Republican.
There are 54 marijuana-related bills or amendments in Congress this session, according to a search on Congress.gov — the most-ever. Most were sentenced to the oblivion of committees where they will never be called for a hearing, and thus be stuck in limbo forever. That's where the CARERS Act, a Senate bill that would move marijuana to Schedule II, currently sits.
But maybe not forever. The momentum behind common sense, science, and reason is here.
“I don't think rescheduling is something that I would characterize as drastic,” Blumenauer says.
“If we were scheduling today, marijuana would not be Schedule I — or Schedule II. In fact, it may not be scheduled at all.”
“If we were scheduling from scratch and doing so based on scientific evidence, tobacco would be Schedule I,” he adds. “It's an addictive killer.”
If Obama won't finish the job, his successor will. Bernie Sanders has introduced a legalization initiative in the Senate, and Blumenauer says he's had several “very productive” conversations on the issue with Hillary Clinton. Even a President Donald Trump might not be able to scoff at an industry worth $15 billion or more in California alone.
Because, unlike in 2008, the drug war and an American cannabis industry are no longer fringe or farce issues.
U.S. Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Dana Rohrabacher will appear in San Francisco at the International Cannabis Business Conference, Feb. 12-13 at the Hyatt Regency. For information and tickets, visit internationalcbc.com.