President Barack Obama might have decriminalized marijuana in the waning months of 2016, one of his key staffers reveals in a new book, but then Donald Trump won the presidential election.
But it’s not exactly clear why the prospect of eliminating criminal penalties for cannabis-related offenses at the end of the Obama presidency hinged on the outcome of the election to replace him.
In his book, “The World as It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House,” former White House Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes makes a couple mentions of marijuana. At one point he recalls the “uncertainty” he felt after being denied an interim security clearance over his past marijuana use. (Rhodes recalled doing poorly in high school in an earlier interview, attributing his performance to “drinking and smoking pot.”)
Fast forward eight years, as Obama aides were brainstorming about what to do with the president’s “remaining time in office,” and Rhodes writes this:
“At home, we could push for criminal justice reform. Maybe Obama could decriminalize marijuana.”
Readers don’t learn much more about the Obama administration’s apparently flirtation with cannabis decriminalization beyond that in the book, which was published this summer, but the statement raises questions about why such an agenda would be derailed simply because former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lost the election.
Marijuana Moment reached out to a representative for Rhodes, but we did not receive a response by the time of publication.
Of course, it’s certainly true that the Trump administration has made a habit of working to overturn or otherwise undermine many of Obama’s signature accomplishments—the Clean Power Plan and the Affordable Care Act, for instance.
“The whole thing that animates and unites his policy views is antipathy towards Obama,” Tommy Vietor, Obama’s former National Security Council spokesman, surmised to The Guardian in a May interview about Trump’s motivations.
Hypothetically, it’s possible that Obama’s team didn’t want to risk tying the issue of marijuana reform to Obama, thereby jeopardizing the long-term survival of a decriminalization policy. That’s not strongly implied in Rhodes’s book, though.
Another theory is that the Obama administration’s to-do list got a lot longer and more frantic after the surprise presidential election result, and they just didn’t have any time to prioritize cannabis reform.
While the former president has earned credit for taking incremental steps toward reforming the criminal justice system and making moves to mostly shield state marijuana laws from federal interference, legalization advocates have routinely criticized Obama for declining to pursue broader cannabis reform over the course of his two terms.
In an interview with VICE News, Obama chided young people over their passion for legalization, arguing that it shouldn’t be their “biggest priority.”
“So let’s put it in perspective, young people, I understand this is important to you but you should be thinking about climate change, the economy, jobs, war and peace, maybe way at the bottom you should be thinking about marijuana,” he said.
Obama appeared increasingly amenable to marijuana reform during his final years in office—saying that he doesn’t think the drug “is more dangerous than alcohol” and suggesting that it should be treated “as a public-health issue, the same way we do with cigarettes or alcohol”—but he also passed the buck by arguing that cannabis-related reforms are better handled by Congress or the Drug Enforcement Administration, not “presidential edict.”
Whether he actually came close to pushing for decriminalization in 2016 is less certain. But according to Rhodes, the outcome of that year’s election effectively sealed the deal, kicking the cannabis can further down the road.
Photo courtesy of the Department of Defense/Sgt. Marianique Santos.