Home Culture President Obama’s Legacy on Marijuana: A Tale of Two Terms

President Obama’s Legacy on Marijuana: A Tale of Two Terms


Those in the cannabis law reform community had some reason to be hopeful as Senator Barack Obama became President Barack Obama in January 2009. As a candidate for Senate and for President, Obama had given lukewarm support to the notion of decriminalizing marijuana.

But many soon gave up hope on Obama when it came to marijuana law reform as he showed himself to be less than progressive on the issue.

Laughter and Raids

“Early on in the Obama administration the president seemed to treat marijuana smoking and marijuana legalization as a joke, refusing to treat it as an important, serious policy issue for the country to address,” Keith Stroup, the founder of NORML, told The Marijuana Times.

Evidence of this came out early during one of Obama’s online town halls, which were events he held frequently during his first term to answer questions from people on the Internet. During those town halls, the question of marijuana legalization invariably dominated the online voting.

“We took votes about which questions were going to be asked and … three point five million people voted. I have to say that there was one question that was voted on that ranked fairly high and that was whether legalizing marijuana would improve the economy — (laughter) — and job creation,” Obama said during a town hall in May 2009. “And I don’t know what this says about the online audience — (laughter) — but I just want … this was a fairly popular question; we want to make sure that it was answered. The answer is, no, I don’t think that is a good strategy — (laughter) — to grow our economy. (Applause.)”

But soon the laughing stopped and the worry began as Obama’s Justice Department launched an all-out assault against medical marijuana providers in states like California and Colorado. Things got so bad that even Obama-loving Rolling Stone was running headlines like “Obama’s War on Pot.” The Nation, another “progressive” publication, used the same headline the following year (2013).

In those years I wrote dozens upon dozens of articles on the Obama medical marijuana crackdown, including this call for then-Attorney General Eric Holder to put a stop to the raids. To say marijuana advocates were perplexed would be an understatement. A progressive president with seemingly nothing to gain by wiping out access for medical cannabis patients was attempting to do just that; or at the very least he was turning a blind eye while the Justice Department did it in his name. But why?

Sadly, we never got a satisfactory answer to that question. But President Obama did get a second term and with it the crackdown faded away.

Obama’s Second Term: A New Hope

With Obama’s second term came a slackening of the medical cannabis crackdown. And with some nudging from Congress, restrictions were put on the Department of Justice to keep them from continuing the assault on MMJ providers.

The famous “Ogden Memo” gave way to the “Cole Memo,” which said the feds expected states that legalized marijuana – as Colorado and Washington had just done – to set up strict regulatory oversight of the industry. Many saw this as a concession to let states decide their own policy on cannabis and time has shown this to be the case. While marijuana raids by the feds have remained sporadic, they have not gone back to the levels seen in Obama’s first term.

“President Obama has given the marijuana legalization movement a historic gift by allowing the various states to experiment with different models of marijuana legalization without federal interference,” Keith Stroup said, looking back on Obama’s Presidency. “It has given us the opportunity to demonstrate that ending marijuana prohibition and legalizing the responsible use of marijuana is an option that works well, with few if any unintended consequences.

“Any prior president, faced with a handful of states trying by voter initiative to forge their own way forward with state regulatory systems, would have had their Justice Department go into federal court and seek an injunction to enjoin the laws licensing the commercial cultivation and sale of marijuana, under the Supremacy Clause of the US Constitution. Most legal observers believe this would have been a successful tactic to shut down those existing regulatory schemes.

“A state has no legal obligation to mimic federal criminal laws, so the feds could not require a state to maintain criminal penalties for a marijuana offense. So a state can legally decriminalize all marijuana offenses under state law. But when a state and federal law are in positive conflict, such as state licensing laws for commercial growing and selling marijuana, the federal law supersedes the state law.”

Obama’s Legacy and Where Do We Go from Here?

“I would say that, on the positive side, Obama supported the rights of states to make their own decisions about marijuana policy and appointed people who, for the most part, supported that as well (e.g. Eric Holder and James Cole),” Amanda Reiman, Manager of Marijuana Law and Policy at the Drug Policy Alliance, told The Marijuana Times. “However, he often passed the buck when it came to taking a strong stance on descheduling marijuana or legalizing it on the federal level, stating that this was up to Congress. His criminal justice reform agenda moved us forward on the issue, but lacked any true protection against the incoming administration in terms of losing ground and reverting back to a 1980’s style drug war. We can only hope that the gains we made under Obama will be enough to maintain our victories in the coming years.”

While many in the marijuana law reform community are grateful that President Obama softened his stance on cannabis in his second term, they also lament the fact that he could have done so much more. He could have been the president that helped end marijuana prohibition in the U.S.; he just never seemed that interested.

“[An] important thing President Obama has done is to commute the federal sentences of more than 1,000 non-violent drug offenders,” Keith Stroup said. “He recognized the incredible damage done to so many lives in this country by mandatory sentencing laws and overly harsh drug sentencing. There remain far too many non-violent drug offenders in state and federal prisons, but President Obama has shown the courage to at least begin to address this problem.

“The biggest disappointment of the Obama Administration is their failure to reschedule marijuana to a lower schedule under the federal Controlled Substances Act; or better yet, to de-schedule it altogether, like alcohol and tobacco, although this latter option would have required the approval of Congress. Obama could have ordered his Department of Justice, and the DEA, to remove marijuana from Schedule I to a lower schedule, which would have reflected science more accurately and made it far easier for researchers to both obtain marijuana and get their marijuana research approved by the federal government.”

As President Obama’s time in office comes to an end, there is still time for him to do more; there is still time for him to shore up his legacy when it comes to cannabis.

“Obama has been the best president ever for marijuana policy, though it’s an extremely low bar,” Tom Angell, the founder of Marijuana Majority, told us. “In truth, the administration’s approach to cannabis has been somewhat all over the map. Probably the best thing he did was simply get out of the way so that states could implement their own policies and show the world that legalization works. But his administration also ignored science and continues to pretend that cannabis belongs in a category for drugs with no medical value. There’s still time before this president leaves office to accomplish rescheduling, and he could also provide mass commutations and pardons to people who have been unjustly punished under marijuana prohibition. But time is running out.”

Depending what comes from the Trump Administration in the near future, we could soon be looking back at President Obama’s ambivalence as the “good old days.” Hopefully we will be able to look back at Obama as the president who got things rolling in terms of the federal government leaving the states alone to determine their own cannabis laws.


  1. To consider Obama “the best president ever for marijuana policy” is bullshit. Drug policy reform ‘leaders’ giving credit to Obama is akin to Catholics responding to the centuries of sexual abuse by saying, Well, the Church does good work.”

    A good argument can be made that Obama was the worst president ever for marijuana policy. Obama’s hypocrisy surrounding his enjoyment of both pot and cocaine notwithstanding, he will have arrested nearly 4 million mostly young people for the simple possession of pot before he leaves office in 2017.

  2. I have always been amazed by how many pot activists – no, activists of all types – can never find it within themselves to give any credit to any politician that does anything (even getting out of the way) positive for reform efforts. I can understand never being satisfied, that is the nature of advocacy until the objective is realized in full, that’s the whole point.

    I sometimes think that if Obama lit up a joint live on TV standing next to every prisoner who has ever been arrested there would be many in the reform community who would attack him for the thinness of his doobie.

    I believe that, after we complain and raise holy hell about the injustices and inadequacies of our elected officials in regard to the absurdity of our pot laws, we should give credit where credit is do and applaud every small victory that they afford us, while not losing sight of the end game.

    In my state I can drive up to a brick and mortar store and select an ounce of herb and drive away without feeling he need to loom in the rear view mirror. That has never happened under any other president since 1937, if ever. But no, Barry is the “worst president” ever for pot.

    I grew up under Nixon and Reagan.

    Yeh. Right. Nothing is ever good enough, and no opportunity to demonize is ever missed. Well, we’ll see what nug life is like under our new prestigious president, won’t we?

    Jeff Sessions. Case closed.

    • i take your point, but sorry, Obama has up to this writing SQUANDERED his chance to get the Feds the hell out of our lives. maybe this is due to him being, at the heart of the matter, someone who thinks government is the default answer to society’s questions. maybe it’s because he’s worried about “sending the wrong signal” to Malia and Sasha. i would propose that not pardoning the thousands of citizens still suffering in prisons in this police state of a nation sends a potent message of its own; namely that the vacillating Prez condones the status quo.

      strictly from a medical perspective, it is shameful that he “allows” us to have access to medical pot. he could pick the phone up TODAY and re-schedule it. the fact that he didn’t do so very very early in his first term only reinforces my belief in the vapid nature of the average politician; the fact that he is considered more than average only makes the situation worse.

      sorry, but Obama, a politician I voted for once, does not get a pass from me. ask the inmates how they feel about their rapidly dwindling prospects for freedom. (btw, and with all respect, do you have a loved one[s] in jail right now thanks to the War On Drug-Users..?).

    • I’ve always been amazed at how activists, for the past 8 years, have looked upon the few scraps Obama tossed our way as a feast. It’s akin to Stockholm Syndrome.

      I grew up under Eisenhower and Kennedy. I got busted by Nixon. Twice. And yes, a good argument can be made that Obama has been the worst friend to pot than any other president, primarily because no other president has been so candid for his love for smoking pot.

      Fuck him.

  3. We are calling the man whose first appointee to head the DEA told the Judiciary Committee, during her confirmation hearings, “There’s no such thing as medical marijuana” and didn’t withdraw that nomination “the best president ever for marijuana policy?” Then, his next appointee to that position equated cannabis’ dangers with those of heroin and said that “Medical marijuana is a joke.”
    More state-compliant mmj facilities were busted in Obama’s first term than in both of “Dubya’s”, combined.
    So muccccch for a policy based on science, not politics.”

  4. Terrorists always hide their true intentions and display themselves as loving, kind, and Patriotic. Even George Washington knew this and he stated, ” Be aware of the False Patriot who will wrap himself up with The American Flag and stab you with it.” Our Declaration of Independence was written to Declare Independence, and to remind us that if our Federal Government becomes destructive to our Independence it is our duty to alter it or abolish it. The Constitution was written for “We The People Of The United States of America…” to have a Constitution that protects “We The People” from our Federal Government, and later The Bill Of Rights was included in The Constitution to further protect “We The People” from our Federal Government.

    The average citizen of The United States Of America has seemed to have forgotten that the closest “Terrorist” to their Democracy is their own Federal Government, and the Commodity known as Cannabis has proven just how much that our Democracy has been chipped away by our Federal Government in act of Terrorism. In truth, Lobbyist take Billions of Dollars each Year and give it to the Senators, and then the Senators write Corrupt Laws, and The White House signs those Corrupt Laws; for example, Lobbyists from Alcohol, Tobacco, and Pharmaceutical Industries give the money to the Senators, and the Senators in turn write the Laws that makes the competitor Cannabis to be a dangerous substance, and the Laws state that the Competitor Cannabis is more dangerous than the already legal Alcohol, Tobacco, and Pharmaceuticals; however, in truth many die every year from these legal Commodities; yet, Cannabis has proven to have a zero death rate. Then Religions; such as Christianity, act right on Queue to approve of the Terrorism and call the less harmful Cannabis an “Evil Weed.

    So at the end of the day this is what “Terrorism” to a Democracy from its Federal Government really looks like, and “We The People” suffer; as well as, our Health, our Economy, and our way of life, and this is because our Federal Government has become destructive, and our Democracy, and our American Dream are now dying because of it, and to make matters even worse, The American People have begun to worship their own Terrorists as though they are GOD, and are immune from evil, and then to add insult to injury comes Religions; such as Christianity, to approve of the Terrorism and call the Terrorism Godly.

    In the end it is the “Same Old Bag Of Tricks” of how to enslave a Nation to a Terrorist’s own liking which was exactly what the King of England done, and the Forefathers of The United States Of America had had enough and declared a war against the King; thus, came the Revolution that appears to now have been in vain as “We The People” continue to lose more and more of our Democracy to the Terrorism committed by our Federal Government in which they have proven to care about Big Banks, Large Corporations, and Corruption more than they have proved to Defend Or Democracy, to Defend our Freedom, to Defend our Declaration of Independence, to Defend our Constitution, to Defend our Bill Of Rights, and to Defend our American Dream. Yes, there is something larger than just the fight for the right of Legalizing our Commodity known as Recreational Cannabis, and that “something” that is larger is trying to get our Nation out of the grips of a Destructive, Corrupt, and Terrorist Federal Government that has taken over The United States Of America, and now “WE THE PEOPLE” as Nation of Democracy are show serious signs of deterioration from the outcome of have a Destructive Federal Government.
    EYE 5

  5. Maybe Keith Stroup who is more than mentioned in this article was expecting some kind of Administration position if Trump had not won.
    Possibly same story with Ethan Nadelman of Drug Policy Alliance. Both are accepting of President Obama’s mealy-mouth incrementalism on marijuana, especially medical marijuana. And yes, as the article points out:
    Why did Obama not go with the public majority position on medical marijuana legalization, which is overwhelmingly pro. As for the DEA , Obama could have demanded their resignations if they disagreed. Odd how the anti-war-on-drugs leaders cut him so much slack