Activists have been anxious to see just how much the social and political climate for marijuana policy reform might change under the Obama administration. Up until early February, there was a lot of speculation, skepticism, and hope but not much observable evidence of whether President Obama's call for objective, science-based policies would extend to marijuana.
Well, just a little more than a month into the new president's term, we're already getting a clearer picture, and the signs appear to be more encouraging than not.
OK, OK, just hear me out before you jump down to the comments section to tell me how naïve I'm being. Yes, the administration's paltry response to questions concerning ending marijuana prohibition was disappointing, especially after the issue topped the list of ideas Obama solicited from the public on his change.gov Web site back in December. Considering the general dissatisfaction with prohibition among the public, and past statements made by the president acknowledging the drug war's failure, the question deserved more than a dismissive "President-elect Obama is not in favor of the legalization of marijuana."
But if you look at some of the developments regarding our issue in this one short month, it's impossible to ignore that we're looking at a very different landscape than we saw under the Bush administration.
Consider what for many of us has been the big question about the new president: Would he make good on his promise to stop federal law enforcement mischief in states with laws protecting valid medical marijuana patients? Or would he, like Bush – who on the campaign trail promised to allow states to decide the issue for themselves – renege and leave patients at the mercy of the Drug Enforcement Administration?
The DEA only gave Obama two days in office before forcing the issue, raiding a medical marijuana dispensary in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., on January 22. One raid is one too many, but most advocates were willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt as he settled into office.
Sure enough, Obama got another chance to address the issue February 3, when the DEA raided four Los Angeles dispensaries. This time, medical marijuana patients, providers, and activists got a much better response.
"The president believes that federal resources should not be used to circumvent state laws, and as he continues to appoint senior leadership to fill out the ranks of the federal government, he expects them to review their policies with that in mind," White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said in response to those raids.
We'll see how the DEA responds, but there are hints they got the message. After quietly rejecting an application by University of Massachusetts-Amherst botanist Prof. Lyle Craker to grow research-grade marijuana just before Bush left office, DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart appeared to switch course from aggressively railroading the application. On February 9, she postponed Craker's request to reconsider the decision until April 1, presumably in recognition of Shapiro's statement.
Meanwhile, even the White House drug czar's office – a notorious refuge for America's moralizing culture warriors since its inception – may be showing signs of at least tempering its anti-science, ideological bent.
I think Scott Morgan at StopTheDrugWar.org was the first to notice that soon after the inauguration, the drug czar's ridiculous blog – pushingback.com – was mysteriously and completely purged.
Gone were the links to their out-of-touch youth anti-marijuana ads. Gone were the demonstrably false assertions that medical marijuana dispensaries outnumbered Starbucks coffee shops in San Francisco. Gone was ... well, everything.
Since then, the blog – which still doesn't offer visitors an opportunity for public comments – has posted four rather benign entries, none of which have the soapboxy tone of the Bush-era blog.
It's hard to know exactly what that means, but unless you're just a fan of absurdity, it has to be a good sign for a more tempered, thoughtful approach to marijuana policy. And this before Obama has even named a permanent drug czar.
None of this is to say that marijuana policy reformers are home free. We need to continue to monitor the political landscape and speak up when we see signs of ideology overtaking reason when it comes to shaping good policy.
But it would be just as foolish to ignore what has taken place the past month. We'll have to wait and see just how significant these events are, but I seriously doubt any of this would have happened prior to this election.