By Ruth Conniff
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President Barack Obama said Friday that he would like Congress to undo "the incarceration model" that American law enforcement has applied to marijuana users for decades, in hopes that a new approach will help address profound racial disparities the nation's drug laws helped create.
Despite his administration's official position that marijuana is a Schedule I substance and every bit as harmful as heroin, LSD and Peyote, Obama told CNN reporter Jake Tapper that he's standing by his recently stated view that the drug is no more harmful than alcohol.
"I stand by my belief, based, I think, on scientific evidence, that marijuana, for casual user, is subject to abuse just like alcohol is and should be treated as a public health problem and challenge," he said.
Tapper also challenged the President on whether he would take executive action to ensure that marijuana is listed with other controlled substances relative to its harm, instead of on the Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA) Schedule I, which is supposedly reserved for the most disorienting and debilitating substances.
Obama, however, punted on Tapper's question. "What is and isn't a Schedule I narcotic is a job for Congress," he said. "It's not... It's not something by ourselves that we start changing. No, there are laws undergirding those determinations."
The Controlled Substances Act (CSA) makes it abundantly clear how drugs are added and removed from the DEA's schedule. The Secretary of Health and Human Services must review the scientific and health information available and recommend a change to the Attorney General, which the CSA says "shall be binding" on the nation's top law enforcement official. It does not mention congressional approval for rescheduling substances.
The President also ignored a follow-up question on whether he would support rescheduling marijuana, and instead reiterated his recent statements to The New Yorker, emphasizing that enforcement of the CSA has resulted in a massive racial disparity in arrest statistics.
"I think that is a problem," he said. "We're going to see what happens in the experiments in Colorado and Washington. The Department of Justice, you know, under Eric Holder, has said that we are going to continue to enforce federal laws. But in those states, we recognize that we don't have the resources, the federal government does not have the resources, to police whether somebody is smoking a joint on the corner. And we are trying to provide them structures to make sure that, you know, big time drug traffickers, the spillover effect of the violence, potentially, of a drug trade are not creeping out with this experiment that is taking place."
Obama added that he wants to "deal with some of the criminal penalty issues" surrounding marijuana, which would allow the government to focus on other methods for discouraging all varieties of substance abuse. "The incarceration model that we've taken, particularly around marijuana, does not seem to have produced the kinds of results that we've set," he said.
"But I do offer a cautionary note, and I said this in the interview," the President warned. "Those who think legalization is a panacea, I think they have to ask themselves some tough questions too. Because if we start having a situation where big corporations with a lot of resources and distribution and marketing arms are suddenly going out there peddling marijuana, then the levels of abuse that may take place are going to be higher."
Despite the obvious contradiction between the President's views and his administration's official position on marijuana, his stated opposition to legalization and tepid support for decriminalization are remarkably consistent. Obama was filmed in 2004 telling an audience that he believes "the war on drugs has been an utter failure," adding that he supports decriminalization but not legalization.
While marijuana arrests have fallen during Obama's tenure, the numbers have not come down by much. A total of 847,863 marijuana arrests were made in 2008, the year of Obama's election, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. That figure dropped to 749,825 by 2012, but the vast majority -- 658,231 in total -- were arrested for simple possession of the drug and not intent to distribute.
"It's very unfortunate that President Obama appears to want to pass the buck to Congress when it comes to marijuana laws, especially when his State of the Union speech this week focused on actions he can take to move America forward without having to wait for the legislative branch to get its act together," legalization advocate Tom Angell, founder of a group called Marijuana Majority, said in an advisory on Friday. "If the president truly believes what he says about marijuana, he has a moral imperative to make the law match up with his views and the views of the majority of the American people, without delay. He should initiate the long overdue rescheduling of marijuana today."