On pot, President Lead-from-Behind led from behind

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Paul Danish/Sue France

A couple days ago Rolling Stone published its exit interview with President Obama, during which he unburdened himself of the following thoughts about marijuana legalization and its recent successes at the ballot box:

“I am not somebody who believes that legalization is a panacea. But I do believe that treating this as a public-health issue, the same way we do with cigarettes or alcohol, is a much smarter way to deal with it … [I]n light of these referenda passing, including in California … it is untenable over the long term for the Justice Department or the DEA to be enforcing a patchwork of laws, where something that’s legal in one state could get you a 20-year prison sentence in another.”

Well thanks a freaking lot, Mr. President.

So you believe that treating marijuana the same way we treat cigarettes or alcohol is “a much smarter way” of dealing with it? I’m sure this information will be of great comfort to the 5 to 6 million Americans who were arrested on marijuana charges during your watch — who were disproportionately black, brown and young, and who disproportionately voted for you.

At the very least, you owe them an explanation as to why you didn’t deal with pot in a smarter way during the eight years when you had the authority to do something about it.

Oh, never mind, I see you did offer them an explanation in the Rolling Stone interview:

“Typically how these classifications are changed are not done by presidential edict but are done either legislatively or through the DEA. As you might imagine, the DEA, whose job it is historically to enforce drug laws, is not always going to be on the cutting edge about these issues…”

Well that is indeed how classifications of drugs in the Controlled Substances Act typically have been changed — or not changed as the case may be.

But that doesn’t change the fact that the Controlled Substances Act sets out a procedure by which the classification of drugs can be changed by executive action. The law gave Obama more than enough authority to use his pen and his phone to reclassify marijuana from a Schedule I Controlled Substance (like heroin) to something more in keeping with reality — or even to de-list it from the act, which would put it in the same class as alcohol and tobacco. But instead of kicking butt at the DEA to recommend rescheduling after years of deliberate delay on its part, Obama sat on his and allowed the DEA to continue to stonewall.

At some point during the last eight years, Obama might have used the presidential “Bully Pulpit” to suggest to Congress that treating marijuana like alcohol and cigarettes is a much smarter way of dealing with pot than treating it like heroin. A few lines in a State of the Union address could have gone a long way toward breaking the ice.

OK, Obama told the Rolling Stone that he thought the debate over pot legalization “is a debate that is now ripe, much in the same way that we ended up making progress on same-sex marriage.”

True, but by the time the debate over same-sex marriage got under way, people weren’t being arrested for being gay anymore. During Obama’s entire administration people were (and are) getting arrested for pot. That difference alone says marijuana legalization merited a real sense of urgency on his part instead of his eight years of studied indifference.

Obama also told Rolling Stone that “There’s something to this whole states-being-laboratories-of-democracy and an evolutionary approach.” Which presumably was the reason he ultimately decided not to go after Colorado and Washington in 2012 after they went rogue and legalized pot. But why didn’t he then follow up by asking Congress to declare that the legalization and regulation of marijuana will be left to the states, as is the case with the regulation of alcohol?

Why, indeed.

Actually, Obama’s approach to pot is easy to explain. It’s a perfect example of President Lead-from-Behind leading from behind.