Obama responds to DEA criticism by pretending he has no power to curtail the drug war


obama-deaPresident Obama asserts the right to due-process free executions, claims the power to engage in lawless surveillance, and just gave a State of the Union address promising unilateral executive action on a whole host of issues. So it was more than a bit strange to see him this week once again  insist he has no power to curtail his own Drug War.

During a discussion with CNN’s Jake Tapper about his recent statements supporting marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington, the president insisted that rescheduling marijuana under federal narcotics law “is a job for Congress.” In making such an assertion, he was deliberately dodging the issue by pretending that without new congressional action, his administration doesn’t have any authority to reschedule the drug.

This claim of powerlessness is the same one Obama made back in April 2012 during an interview about marijuana with Rolling Stone magazine. It is, of course, factually false. You don’t have to trust me on that evaluation – you can trust the president’s own Attorney General Eric Holder, who admitted that under the Controlled Substances Act, the Obama administration already has the power to reschedule marijuana (Update: Holder’s statement was later confirmed by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy). This isn’t some vague gray area in the law, either – it is explicit.

To be sure, rescheduling cannabis isn’t full-on legalization. But it would begin the process of federally authorizing medicinal use of cannabis, and it would also be a major step toward general decriminalization. Such steps could also be coupled with other executive actions to, say, deprioritize prosecution of marijuana-related cases.

So here’s the question: if Obama (rightly) believes marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol and believes it is “important for (legalization) to go forward,” why is he refusing to turn his words into action? Perhaps he is yielding to pressure from law enforcement organizations and his own Drug Enforcement Agency. As the Boston Herald reports:

DEA chief Michele M. Leonhart slammed President Obama’s recent comments comparing smoking marijuana to drinking alcohol at an annual meeting of the nation’s sheriffs this week, according to two sheriffs who said her remarks drew a standing ovation…

Kern County, Calif., Sheriff Donny Youngblood, president of the Major Counties Sheriffs’ Association, the group that sponsored Leonhart’s talk Tuesday at its annual meeting in Washington, D.C., said Leonhart called out Obama for what Youngblood described as “irresponsible” comments that were a “big slap in the face” to cops who have lost their lives keeping drugs off the street.

“This is a woman who has spent 33 years of her life fighting drug abuse in the DEA, her entire life. To have the president of the United States publicly say marijuana was a bad habit like alcohol was appalling to everyone in that room,” Youngblood said…

“The last person we need saying this to kids is the president of the United States,” (Bristol County Sheriff) Hodgson said.

It is certainly appalling that the DEA is openly criticizing Obama for merely citing decades of medical and social science research that shows marijuana is far safer than alcohol. It is also quite rare for a president’s own appointee to publicly slam her boss.

But, then, the willingness of the DEA chief to slam her boss (and the previous willingness of federal prosecutors and  law enforcement agencies to ignore the sprit of drug-enforcement directives) probably reflects how much of a vested political and financial interest the DEA and law enforcement agencies have in continuing of the drug war. During annual budget negotiations, these agencies need strong political support for the drug war in order to secure their huge appropriations. Without that political support – and with, say, a president indicting the war on marijuana – it becomes much harder to justify those appropriations.

In other words, ending the war on weed is perceived by drug warriors to be an existential threat to their budgets, their power, their relevance and their core mission. Thus, the drug warriors are lashing out and insisting he back off any drug policy reforms. Unfortunately, the president’s dissembling about his rescheduling power suggests he is acceding to their demands.

UPDATE: In a tweet, the spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy confirms that President Obama lied when he told CNN’s Jake Tapper that the administration doesn’t have the power to reschedule marijuana under federal law.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]