Ever since the historic votes in Washington and Colorado last November to legalize cannabis for adult use, all eyes in the cannabis reform movement have remained fixed on Washington, D.C., wondering what the president would do. Now, after nearly four months of silence from the White House, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper has provided one of the first clues regarding the thinking of Attorney General Eric Holder and other top officials in the Obama administration on the subject of cannabis cultivation and distribution.
“They’re looking at how we can adjust something in the rule-making — is there something in the regulatory framework that we can accommodate the will of these voters, and can we do it in such a way that doesn’t endanger or put undue pressures on our neighboring states or other states?” said Hickenlooper, as reported by Buzzfeed on Saturday. The comments reflect an apparent willingness by the federal Department of Justice to find some sort of compromise between the state constitution of Colorado – which since the approval of Amendment 64 last November has obligated the state bureaucracy to regulate the Colorado cannabis industry similarly to alcohol regulations – and the federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which presently lists cannabis in the restrictive Schedule I, disallowing any use for any purpose.
As I’ve previously argued, hard political realities have tied the hands of Holder and President Obama against taking unilateral action to shut down all provisions of Amendment 64; such an act would rightly be seen as an abuse of power and an attempt to subvert the will of the people – and yet his opponents in Congress will not allow the president to permit a marijuana free-for-all, either. Thus, some sort of compromise is inevitable, and I argued that a combination of high taxation and selective prosecution would be the most likely tactic to emerge from a second-term Obama administration; such a strategy would allow Obama to shape the emerging cannabis industry in a way favorable to his other political goals while reaping a fiscal benefit in a time of government deficits.
Hickenlooper attempted to put the onus on Congress, by noting that they could amend the Controlled Substances Act to regulate cannabis in states which had legalized it. While technically true, the statement remains somewhat disingenuous, because Congress has already chosen to delegate the power to reschedule substances to the Attorney General and the DEA. That legislative fact puts the ball squarely in Holder’s court, and Obama’s. And according to Colorado’s governor, these very men are open to working out a compromise.