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The State of the Union’s Glaring Omission

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Joint Opinions

The State of the Union’s Glaring Omission

One would think that this is the perfect time for Obama to start talking about cannabis. With Republicans in control of both houses, and largely uncooperative, the President has turned to the executive action to advance policy. In 2014 alone, he signed substantial executive orders on immigration, climate change, the minimum wage, workers rights, discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation, student loans, government bonds, arbitration and credit card security. This increasingly emboldened Obama has been more motivated by the policy that he wants, rather than establishing good processes for governing (which was a chief concern for much of his first term).

With no Republican or centrist Democrat votes to cobble together, and no reelection to worry about, Obama’s executive orders are based more on policy than politics (which isn’t to say that politics has been forgotten). So, it was with some disappointment that the 2015 State of the Union came and went without “marijuana,” “drugs,” or even “Colorado” crossing Obama’s lips. Okay, he said “Colorado Springs,” but that doesn’t count.

The political dynamics seem right for presidential action on marijuana. Obama has an increasing appetite for unilateral action and there’s a particular decision the President could make that’s clearly dictated by the facts: rescheduling cannabis from being considered a Schedule I substance. It seems clear enough that Obama understands that, if nothing else, pot doesn’t deserve to be classified as a dangerous drug of abuse, and has no medical effect.

He recently told the New Yorker that, “I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol,” before going on to decry the racially unjust enforcement of drug laws in the U.S.

And yet, the president has always been hesitant to talk about the issue and is entirely hands off when it comes to acting on cannabis reform. Asked last January by CNN’s Jake Tapper if he would consider rescheduling weed, Obama said that “what is and isn’t a Schedule I narcotic is a job for Congress.”

It could be a job for the president — he does have that power (as does Attorney General Eric Holder) — but thus far Obama has chosen not to seize the issue. Until recently, it’s likely that the president would have said the same thing about immigration reform and climate change. The major issues of today have been jobs for Congress until Congress shows that it has no interest in doing them. So, why did the President pass on the opportunity to speak about cannabis during the State of the Union yet again?

Simply put, he has other priorities and he is afraid of drowning them out with the inevitable buzz that substantial steps around drug reform would create. Obama chooses to do some things quietly (e.g. foreign policy, criminal justice reform) and others loudly (e.g. middle class tax cuts, immigration reform). In other words, he only wants certain types of attention. The problem with drug reform is that there’s no way to do it quietly. Obama wanted this State of the Union to be about progressive taxation and free community college. Drug reform would give his opponents an easy target on an agenda that doesn’t necessarily have obvious penetration points with which to deflate any excitement around the address and the policies therein.

If the President could reschedule cannabis on a Friday and be done answering questions about it by Tuesday, one would hope he would, but the reality is that he likely wouldn’t be done brushing off the gateway theory until he left office. He still has some ability to define the various debates that happen within America and dodging drug reform is part of a strategy to maintain this control.

Obama’s decision to largely ignore drug reform to this point can fairly be called cowardly or calculating or both. With two years remaining in office, we can hope that marijuana’s growing public acceptance, Obama’s expiring ability to issue executive orders and the obvious merits of the policy will spur the president to take long overdue action and reschedule cannabis.

Why do you think Obama refuses to talk about cannabis? Share your thoughts in the comments. 

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