What Now, Obama?

The president talks a nice game about marijuana, but that doesn't mean much

As the presidential election was unfolding, and it started to look like an Obama victory, cannabis advocates across the nation started wondering what the Choomer in Chief would do about the drug. It was looking like voters would make it legal for recreational use in Colorado and Washington and maybe Oregon, too.

President Obama had offered a few hints about how he feels, never advocating full legalization or even directly backing the medical paradigm, but saying he thinks the Department of Justice should consider it a low priority to bust medical-marijuana establishments in states where it's legal. It was a weak endorsement, of sorts. Some thought his post-election lame-duck status would allow him the freedom to revert to his high school days and come out for legalization. Then on Election Day, all hell broke loose when voters (the smart ones, anyway) gave the nod to recreational use in Washington and Colorado, prompting my daughter to say on Facebook, "Everyone is going to move to Colorado now and the current residents are going to be like 'wut is going on' and it's going to be a huge mess." I don't know how many people are planning to move, but I do think a huge mess is developing.

The president kinda sorta weighed in on the issue last week, when he told ABC News that we need a conversation about how to deal with the situation. He didn't come out for legalization, but he offered yet another hint that he thinks the federal government should back off.

"It does not make sense from a prioritization point of view for us to focus on recreational drug-users in a state that has already said that under state law, that's legal. At this point (in) Washington and Colorado, you've seen the voters speak on this issue. And, as it is, the federal government has a lot to do when it comes to criminal prosecutions," Obama told ABC, adding that he won't go so far as to say pot should be legal and doesn't want to encourage drug use.

Well, that all sounds great, but it solves exactly nothing and moves the discussion forward exactly zero inches. It's pretty much the same thing the president said about medical marijuana a couple of years ago. Since then, Attorney General Eric Holder and his Department of Justice have made it a priority to bust numerous medical-marijuana dispensaries in several states and put one Montana dispensary operator behind bars and facing a 90-plus-year mandatory federal prison sentence (not a typo).

So I have some questions about what Obama's soft language means, exactly. There will almost certainly be busts in Colorado and Washington despite the low priority of marijuana. Making it a low priority doesn't mean looking the other way, and it shouldn't. I'm not against busting dispensaries or recreational users when they flagrantly break the law. I'm OK with not selling cannabis near schools and keeping it low-key, under the radar. But I think we need more than a conversation. We need a decision, a change in federal law.

Ultimately, Obama won't have to make a decision unless he wants to. He can continue to pass the buck, to kick the can down the road to the next president (Hillary?), who could then kick it to the next president, and so on. But eventually, the public is going to stomp on the can, flattening it so it can't be kicked anymore. People will demand a decision.

When that happens, the can will stop in the road, and President Obama will be able to smoke out in retirement the way he did in high school.