© Josh Sager – January 2014
Given recent trends, it appears as though President Obama is prepared to “evolve” on marijuana decriminalization in a similar manner to how he “evolved” on gay marriage. While it is unlikely that Obama will fully throw his support behind a federal legalization of marijuana, I think that Obama is laying the groundwork for a dramatic decrease in the federal government’s involvement in the ‘war on pot.”
Over the past few months, President Obama has not only declined to intervene in the Colorado recreational pot opening, but has even indicated in an interview that he sees pot as “no more dangerous than alcohol.” Additionally, the DOJ and U.S. Treasury just recently announced that they will begin drafting regulations for money deposited by “legal” state pot sellers.
In a way, President Obama’s recent shift on pot mimics the shift that he performed on gay marriage. Both situations follow a trend, where Obama waits until public opinion shift to his side of the debate and then begins to slowly “evolve” on the issue so that he always remains with public opinion backing up his rhetoric.
If Obama continues to follow this pattern on the issue of pot legalization, I think it very likely that he will dramatically scale down federal enforcement of marijuana laws and leave it up to the states to regulate their own pot policy—by doing this, Obama can be seen as sympathetic to pot legalization, yet can avoid having his fingerprints on any push to affirmatively legalize pot that could be used to tar him politically (he will simply say that he has left pot policy enforcement to the states).
Obama’s Tipping Point
In some areas of politics, President Obama is a fundamentally weak individual who will only admit to his obviously held beliefs once they become politically palatable—two examples of such weak areas for Obama are pot legalization and gay marriage.
Despite the fact that Obama supported gay equality for years before becoming president, once in office, Obama refused to throw his support behind gay marriage until May of 2012; similarly, Obama has a history of smoking pot but has presided over a record number of federal pot raids.
Put simply, Obama is putting up a transparent veneer over his true beliefs in these areas of policy so that he doesn’t need to stick his neck out on a controversial issue that the GOP can hammer him on. Fortunately, while craven, this tactic is only useful until public opinion shifts to the point where the GOP loses its majority support on the issue—then, Obama can “evolve” on the issue without fear of political repercussion.
In May 2012, when Obama decided to officially support gay marriage, several states had legalized gay marriage, DOMA was contested in court, and public opinion polls had shifted in favor of gay equality—specifically, polls conducted several weeks before President Obama’s May “evolution” on gay marriage had public support for gay equality at 53% support, 39% oppose.
In order to support gay marriage, Obama did not attempt to push a federal law which would force states to legally marry same-sex couples, but rather declined to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in a way that would clear the states to make their own decisions on marriage benefits.
For much of 2013, polls indicated that public support for pot legalization was hovering around 50% support. During late 2013, polls began to trend more in support of pot legalization and the currently sit at 55% support, 44% oppose.
As previously discussed, Obama appears to have started “evolving” on the issue of pot legalization in late 2013/early 2014. In order to support his emerging stance on pot, Obama is taking similar executive actions to what he did in regard to same-sex marriage—for example, just as how Obama refused to defend DOMA in court, he is now refusing to exert the supremacy clause in order to ensure that all states comply with the federal law that pot is a drug.
It may be a coincidence that Obama started softening his public rhetoric and policies on both gay marriage and pot legalization within a few weeks of each issue hitting approximately 53% support with less than 45% oppose, but that would be unlikely. Given the commonalities in these situation, it appears that a 53% public support rating on an issue is the “magic number” that causes Obama to “evolve” on said issue.
If my “magic number” theory is correct and Obama is utilizing the same playbook on pot policy as he did gay marriage, the coming months will see increased tolerance on the federal level for state pot legalization. As states begin to follow Colorado’s example (all of that pot tax revenue is EXTREMELY tempting to any legislature), we will see the Obama administration abdicate its enforcement of federal pot laws and essentially stop raiding legal pot dispensaries.
It is unlikely that any legislation which would legalize pot will make it through the legislature any time soon—nor is it likely that Obama has the bravery to even suggest such a bill—but that may change after the 2014 midterms. Depending upon the new balance of power in the legislature, it is possible (albeit unlikely) that liberals and libertarians could gather enough votes to pass a bill onto Obama’s desk that would legalize or decriminalize pot on the federal level; if this bill were to pass on a bipartisan basis and polls were to continue trending towards support for legalization, I think that Obama would see it as enough political cover to sign the bill and finally end the war on pot.