Will Obama Let Washington and Colorado Keep Their Legal Pot?

Many are pessimistic. But here's the case for optimism.



The marijuana reform movement made history this week, when voters in Colorado and Washington passed ballot initiatives legalizing the possession and sale of cannabis for purely recreational use. As our newly re-elected vice president might put it, this was a big f***ing deal in the world of drug policy. The new laws would treat marijuana much like alcohol and tobacco, setting the stage for a large scale, tightly regulated, and generously taxed commercial industry worth some untold millions of dollars. Simply put, these would be the most lax marijuana laws in the world -- smack dab in the middle of the country that invented the modern drug war. 

The big question now is: Will Obama let it happen?


While our president may be famous for saying he inhaled as a teenager ("because that was the point") marijuana is still very much banned under federal law. It's designated as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, just like other oh-so-not-legal drugs as LSD and heroin. And after essentially promising to defer to state law on medical marijuana early in the Obama administration, the Justice Department has, by some accounts, lowered the boom. According to Americans for Safe Access, the Drug Enforcement Administration has raided at least 200 cannabis dispensaries since 2009 and prosecutors have brought more than 60 indictments against medical marijuana providers. 

"There's no question that Obama's the worst president on medical marijuana," Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, told Rolling Stone earlier this year. "He's gone from first to worst."

Some believe Obama's tough-on-pot stance suggests the feds might stop Washington and Colorado from setting up legal sales. After all, the initiatives don't even offer any pretense about medicating cancer. They simply make it legal to buy pot from a licensed distributor, then light up.

"Once these states actually try to implement these laws, we will see an effort by the feds to shut it down," Kevin Sabet, a former senior drug policy adviser to the president, told NBC News. "We can only guess now what exactly that would look like. But the recent U.S. attorney actions against medical marijuana portends an aggressive effort to stop state-sponsored growing and selling at the outset."


Perhaps unsurprisingly, the backers of the Washington and Colorado initiatives are more optimistic. Their message, which I heard versions of in three interviews, boiled down to this: There hasn't actually been a national crackdown on medical marijuana, and with the right steps, there might not be a crackdown on commercial marijuana, either. 

In this telling, the recent flurry of raids and prosecutions against cannabis providers is not a sign that the administration intends to smother the medical marijuana industry in its cradle. Instead, it's been a response to the rapid growth of dispensaries in states like California, where ambiguous weed law leads to abuses.

"The federal government could go in and arrest everybody and indict everybody for distributing marijuana," said Alison Holcomb, the campaign director for New Approach Washington, which steered its state's legalization initiative. "They're not doing that."  

Presented by

Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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