Obama Elaborates Position on Medical Marijuana Raids

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President Barack Obama on the cover of Rolling Stone
President Barack Obama on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Source: Mark Seliger for RollingStone.com, Apr. 25, 2012

President Barack Obama elaborated on his position regarding the federal government’s raids on medical marijuana clinics in the May 10, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone magazine (posted online Apr. 25, 2012). Rolling Stone editor and publisher Jann S. Wenner and President Obama had the following exchange, as presented in the article titled “Ready for the Fight: Rolling Stone Interview with Barack Obama” (available at RollingStone.com):

“[Wenner:] Let me ask you about the War on Drugs. You vowed in 2008, when you were running for election, that you would not ‘use Justice Department resources to try and circumvent state laws about medical marijuana.’ Yet we just ran a story that shows your administration is launching more raids on medical pot than the Bush administration did. What’s up with that?

[Obama:] Here’s what’s up: What I specifically said was that we were not going to prioritize prosecutions of persons who are using medical marijuana. I never made a commitment that somehow we were going to give carte blanche to large-scale producers and operators of marijuana – and the reason is, because it’s against federal law. I can’t nullify congressional law. I can’t ask the Justice Department to say, ‘Ignore completely a federal law that’s on the books.’ What I can say is, ‘Use your prosecutorial discretion and properly prioritize your resources to go after things that are really doing folks damage.’ As a consequence, there haven’t been prosecutions of users of marijuana for medical purposes.

The only tension that’s come up – and this gets hyped up a lot – is a murky area where you have large-scale, commercial operations that may supply medical marijuana users, but in some cases may also be supplying recreational users. In that situation, we put the Justice Department in a very difficult place if we’re telling them, ‘This is supposed to be against the law, but we want you to turn the other way.’ That’s not something we’re going to do. I do think it’s important and useful to have a broader debate about our drug laws. One of the things we’ve done over the past three years was to make a sensible change when it came to the disparity in sentencing between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. We’ve had a discussion about how to focus on treatment, taking a public-health approach to drugs and lessening the overwhelming emphasis on criminal laws as a tool to deal with this issue. I think that’s an appropriate debate that we should have.”

Marijuana is currently a Schedule I drug, the most restrictive schedule in the US Controlled Substances Act. According to US law, there are four ways by which marijuana could be reclassified as a drug generally available by prescription (Schedule II or III):

  1. The US Attorney General can initiate rescheduling on his or her own, at the request of the Health and Human Services Secretary, on petition of interested party, or if obligated by international treaties.
  2. The US Secretary of Health and Human Services can issue a binding recommendation to the Attorney General to reschedule marijuana.
  3. US Congress can amend the Controlled Substances Act it passed in 1970 to reschedule marijuana.
  4. The DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) and FDA (Food and Drug Administration) together can reschedule marijuana if clinical trials show that it is “safe” and “effective.”

Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) spoke out against the federal crackdowns on dispensaries in states that have legalized medical marijuana, and said that he has voiced his concerns to the President. “I think it’s bad politics and bad policy. I’m very disappointed. I think it’s a grave mistake,” Rep. Frank told The Hill on Apr. 27, 2012.

President Obama and his administration have made previous statements about medical marijuana and federal raids. In a Mar. 22, 2008 interview with The Mail Tribune’s Editorial Page Editor, Gary Nelson, then-candidate Barack Obama said in part:

“When it comes to medical marijuana, I have more of a practical view than anything else. My attitude is that if it’s an issue of doctors prescribing medical marijuana as a treatment for glaucoma or as a cancer treatment, I think that should be appropriate because there really is no difference between that and a doctor prescribing morphine or anything else… What I’m not going to be doing is using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue simply because I want folks to be investigating violent crimes and potential terrorism. We’ve got a lot of things for our law enforcement officers to deal with.”

On Feb. 29, 2009 Attorney General Eric Holder said that he did not expect raids on medical marijuana clinics to continue. “He was my boss during the campaign, he is formally and technically and by law my boss now. So what he said during the campaign is now American policy.”

On Oct. 19, 2009 the Department of Justice issued its now famous Ogden memo, which announced that prosecutorial priorities should not target “individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.” Most observers believed that medical marijuana users and caregivers who complied with state law would no longer be the focus of federal prosecution.

However, on Oct. 7, 2011, federal prosecutors in California announced their efforts to crack down on medical marijuana dispensaries with “significant commercial operations.” Drug policy experts have alleged that federal raids on medical marijuana clinics indicate that President Obama and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have contradicted their earlier positions on medical marijuana.


Jann S. Wenner, “Ready for the Fight: Rolling Stone Interview with Barack Obama,” RollingStone.com, Apr. 25, 2012

Elise Viebeck, “Barney Frank: Obama’s Crackdown on Marijuana ‘Bad Politics and Bad Policy’,” The Hill, Apr. 27, 2012