On National Pot Day, A Speech President Obama Should Give

More Americans today support medical-marijuana use than support the death penalty. So if Obama won't lead here, then perhaps he should follow.

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Reuters

It is April 20, 4-20, 420, 4:20, a date and a number which means one thing to America's older generations and quite likely another thing to its newer ones. In the lingo of the marijuana world, and now even far beyond it, "420" is both a state of mind and an appointment -- the time of the day, and especially on that particular day of the year, to smoke pot. It's been this way since 1971, says Wikipedia, and this year, with the observance coming on a Friday, the Internet has been ablaze, you might say, with gleeful chatter about all the observances (furtive and otherwise) planned to mark the event. "Tomorrow is 4/20" was even trending on Twitter for hours and hours on Thursday.

With this timing in mind, and with this week's news that President Obama is in trouble with young voters, I thought it might make sense to briefly suggest the language of a speech he might give on this topic. It's time. Not only are younger voters more strongly in favor of legalizing marijuana, but a significant majority of Americans are in favor of permitting medical marijuana use, a CBS News poll last fall showed. And here's what the president should say in a speech from a room in which he is surrounded by medical marijuana patients whose chronic pain or seizures have been eased by the drug:

My Fellow Americans:

Every day this Administration seeks as best it can to evaluate our nation's existing policies and priorities to determine whether they continue to make sense or whether they are counterproductive to America's evolving goals and ideals. As individuals, we make these sorts of re-evaluations all the time in our own lives. We learn from experience what works and what does not. We change our minds. We strive to be better. And as a nation we must do the same to ensure that the path we have chosen is still the one we want to be on.

So, after careful consideration and a through review by the Justice Department, and with the consent and cooperation of other relevant federal agencies, I announce today that this Administration will have a new approach to the issue of medical marijuana in those states which have legalized it. Our new policies are consistent with the promises I made as a candidate, they finally make good on pronouncements I made early in my term, they are faithful in their traditional deference to states' rights, and they sensibly redirect federal resources at a time when we need every budget dollar we can find.

I have directed the attorney general to issue a directive to all U.S. attorneys and other federal officials that they may no longer raid or threaten to prosecute medical-marijuana growers and distributors in those states that have legalized the use of the drug. As of today, the federal government will be content to allow state authorities to monitor those growers and distributors to ensure that they are complying with state law. To those states we say: We are still here to help you if you need us. To the American people we say: No longer will your federal tax dollars be spent interfering with these particular state policy choices.

I also have directed Attorney General Holder to specifically inform federal prosecutors and investigators that they may no longer threaten with prosecution under the Controlled Substances Act those state employees in medical-marijuana venues who are merely doing their jobs as required under state law. These civil servants should not have to live in fear of federal prosecution when they are merely enforcing duly-enacted state laws. This is a matter of both common decency and common sense, and it is another way in which we can reduce the size of the federal footprint in medical-marijuana venues.

To the extent that these state policies conflict with existing federal drug laws I call upon the Congress to change the law. To the extent this Administration may interpret its regulations to give effect to today's pronouncements, we will, trying when we can to show a measure of respect for those state jurisdictions which have decided to experiment with medical marijuana legalization. Some of these states will do better than others. And the ones which do it well will be copied. That's how tenable policy is formed, from the grassroots up, and this administration will no longer chill state efforts to make such policies work.

Moreover, while I do not condone the general legalization of marijuana, it is clear that the time has come to broadly reassess the factual and legal and historical bases for its current classification under the Controlled Substances Act and other federal laws. At a minimum, our national laws should explicitly recognize the rights of states to permit their citizens to use medical marijuana. And a broader study of the current legal and factual rationale for federal marijuana laws would allow us, ultimately, to make a more informed policy choice on the merits here.

Let's hear from the economists and the law enforcement community. Let's talk to educators and prison officials. Let's get state and federal auditors on the record explaining the costs and benefits of our current national policy toward marijuana. How much does that policy cost? What will be the costs of changing it? How will it affect public safety?  And what should the federal government do on the day after a state's voters approve a measure that legalizes marijuana use beyond the medical context? Sooner or later, if the current trends continue, that will happen.

Do we want to continue to spend billions in tax dollars criminalizing marijuana sales, or do we want to consider raising billions in tax revenues by legalizing and then taxing marijuana sales? Is it time to treat marijuana the way we treat alcohol and cigarettes, or do we want to continue to allow old classifications to guide us? For decades, for generations, these questions were beyond the mainstream of American political thought. But no longer. As a nation, we ought to be able to talk about this, rationally and sensibly, as part of a larger conversation about economics, crime, revenues, civil liberties, and individual responsibility.

The reason I know it's time to change course and perhaps recalibrate our national priorities on this controversial topic isn't just because I read the latest polls which show growing support for marijuana legalization and a strong majority in favor of medical marijuana use by ill patients. All over the country, new voices are speaking out for a re-evaluation of our current drug policies. And in the past 15 years alone no fewer than 16 states and the District of Columbia have legalized the use of medical marijuana. This is more than a trend. It is a sea change, the nation's new reality.

If you don't believe me, believe Pat Robertson. The Christian conservative icon recently made a compelling social and economic case for the legalization of marijuana. Like millions of his fellow Americans, Mr. Robertson is repulsed by the idea that California today spends more money on prisons and prisoners than it does on public schools. Marijuana possession laws, in part at least, are to blame for that. Mr. Robertson wants to direct money from prisons to schools and that makes perfect sense to me. At least we ought to seriously talk about it.

And if you don't believe Pat Robertson, believe Milton Friedman, the Reagan-era conservative economist, who pronounced in 2005 that Americans would see huge savings -- approximately $14 billion in combined savings and tax revenues -- if the United States were to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. Again, I don't agree that we should go this far at this time. But I do believe we ought to be talking about this. To give you some sense of perspective, more people today support the use of medical marijuana (77 percent) than support the death penalty (61 percent).

Of course, I am not here to condone drug or alcohol use. As a politician, as the president, as a man, I have seen with my own eyes the destruction caused by drug and alcohol abuse. And as a father I can assure you that I don't ever want my girls to use drugs. I will continue to talk with them, as Michelle and I already have, about the dangers of drug use, especially for teenagers. And I am sure that those conversations will continue even after both of our kids have left the nest. That's what parents do. That's what doctors do.

But it's not what the federal government should be doing. Just last week, at the Summit of the Americas in Colombia, I said that "legalization is not the answer." But I also told my host, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, that I'd be willing to talk whether our drug laws may be "doing more harm than good in certain places." Medical marijuana is one of those places. Our policy toward it over the past few years has done more harm than good. We have gone too far in threatening federal sanctions for lawful state activity. I am responsible for that. And also responsible for this shift. It's time to change.

If our friends in Congress disagree, on either side of the aisle, then let them come forth and rail against the rights of states to be free from federal oppression; let them argue that federal interference in state and local matters doesn't go far enough; let them proclaim that they believe that the federalization of criminal law is a grand idea; let them criticize state and local governments for experimenting with such laws. The truth is our new policies are conservative in the traditional sense of the word. The White House can be tough on crime without being blind to the needs of a small minority of ill Americans who benefit from medical marijuana.

Our new policies will not force anyone to use medical marijuana if they don't want to. They will not make medical marijuana legal in any state in which it currently is not. And they will not neuter federal efforts to enforce the nation's many other drug laws. In fact, federal resources now devoted to the medical-marijuana front will be redirected toward other law enforcement priorities. In an age of limited budgets, we need to be smarter about how we spend our money. This change will allow us to be smarter -- and isn't that what this Administration's critics and adversaries are always beseeching us to be?

I can speak only for the executive branch and today I have. I now ask Congress to consider these questions and to enact appropriate, measured legislation that acknowledges the factual and legal realities surrounding the use of medical marijuana in America. And I stand ready to help the lawmakers in any way I can to explore other reforms on laws that prohibit marijuana use. Surely this is an issue that transcends party -- or at least joins liberals and libertarians in a common goal. As a federal government, the powers of which are limited by the Constitution, we have better things to do with our time and our money and our energy.

On drug policy, some will call this a retreat. Some will call it a surrender. The truth is it is neither. It is instead a reflection of our ability as a people to recognize the change within us and to adapt our policies to reflect those changes. That dynamic has been unfolding now on a state level for nearly a generation. We see it in the polls and in the questions our nation's young people are asking of us. We see it in the faces of medical marijuana patients who need the drug to get through the day. Today, the change we all know has arrived will be formally recognized on the federal level. It's about time.

Presented by

Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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