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Is Obama evolving on marijuana?
A White House spokesman says the president hasn't changed his mind on weed... "at this point"
"We suspect that this former marijuana aficionado will, too, evolve on this subject matter as the American public has. That's what politicians do."
"We suspect that this former marijuana aficionado will, too, evolve on this subject matter as the American public has. That's what politicians do." Rick Friedman-Pool/Getty Images
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he Justice Department recently announced that it would move to reduce the number of low-level drug offenders incarcerated in federal prisons. And a prominent CNN medical expert dramatically reversed his opposition to marijuana, apologizing for "misleading" the nation and saying he had determined that pot has "very legitimate medical applications."

With those developments, some believed President Obama, who famously "evolved" on gay marriage as the political winds shifted in its favor, would soon espouse a new stance on marijuana, too. That speculation intensified Wednesday, when White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama did not support changing federal law regarding marijuana — "at this point."

To some, that looked like a sly wink, an admission that while Obama did not support changes now, he eventually would.

So how likely is it that the White House will soon come around on the issue? The short answer: Don't inhale hold your breath.

Yes, the president who has admitted to being an avid weed smoker in his youth still considers the drug illegal — and extremely dangerous, too.

The Drug Enforcement Administration classifies drugs into five schedules, ranked by their perceived danger and potential for abuse, with Schedule I being the worst. Schedule I drugs, per the DEA, have "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse," and carry the risk of "potentially severe psychological or physical dependence."

Marijuana is a Schedule I drug, right alongside heroin and LSD. Cocaine, OxyContin, and methamphetamine, meanwhile, are considered Schedule II drugs, and therefore less dangerous.

Obama pleased the pro-pot crowd early in his presidency. In 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the administration would not fight state-level medical-marijuana laws, and would leave dispensaries alone so long as they complied with state regulations.

Yet since 2011, the administration has dramatically reversed course. In a memo that year, Deputy Attorney General James Cole, while acknowledging scarce federal resources, ordered U.S. attorneys to prosecute marijuana offenses "regardless of state law."

Since then, the administration has aggressively cracked down on medical-marijuana distributors, raiding hundreds of dispensaries and threatening to shutter others. A June report from the pro-medical-marijuana group Americans For Safe Access estimated that the administration had spent some $300 million policing medical marijuana since the start of Obama's presidency.

As with same-sex marriage, though, public opinion on marijuana has been rapidly liberalizing over the past two decades.

In 1991, nearly eight in 10 Americans said marijuana should be illegal, according to the Pew Research Center. This past April, for the first time ever, a majority (52 percent) said it should be legal.

Compare that with same-sex marriage, which two thirds of Americans opposed in 1996, per Pew. Now, a solid majority support it, the president and almost every Democratic senator have endorsed it, and the Supreme Court has ruled that Washington cannot deny same-sex partners federal benefits.

"The president has clearly evolved regarding a couple of different subject matters over the course of his presidency," Allen St. Pierre, head of the the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, told Yahoo News. "We suspect that this former marijuana aficionado will, too, evolve on this subject matter as the American public has. That's what politicians do."

Dr. Sanjay Gupta's sudden reversal was also notable, not necessarily for his celebrity status, but because Obama had previously shown that he greatly valued the CNN contributor and neurosurgeon's opinion. In 2009, Gupta received "serious consideration" for appointment to the position of surgeon general, though he ultimately withdrew his name to focus on his surgical career.

Though decriminalization — or even a detente in the fight over medical marijuana — is unlikely in the near future, the president could still push the nation toward broader tolerance of the drug in other ways.

In the most notable example, the Justice Department, arguing that the drug war posed an untenable financial burden, announced this month that it would take steps to allow judges to issue lighter sentences to low-level drug offenders. Though the DOJ will not be changing mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines — which remain a huge point of contention for critics of federal drug laws — the change will at least give judges more freedom to issue lighter sentences in the future, thus reducing the number of low-level offenders packed into federal prisons.

"Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason," Holder said.

For now, that may be the closest the administration comes to touching the issue. Yet simply talking about it is, to some degree, a step forward.

Last summer, Marc Ambinder reported that Obama would "pivot" to the drug war in his then-hypothetical second term. Though he cautioned that Obama would not go all-in to decriminalize weed, he suggested that "the best thing a president can do may be what Obama winds up doing if he gets re-elected: Using the bully pulpit to draw attention to the issue."

Indeed, that's what Obama, through the DOJ, has already done.

Jon Terbush is a staff writer for TheWeek.com covering politics, sports, and other things he finds interesting. He has previously written for Talking Points Memo, Raw Story, and Business Insider.

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