President Obama has already signaled he will use his State of the Union address Tuesday evening to kick off his version of the “Damn the torpedoes” years of his tenure.
The President is following the edict boxers know — always try to finish with a flourish if you want the judges to be kind. In other words, to secure his legacy, Obama needs to go out with a bang.
This is likely why we’ve seen Obama launch his executive action on immigration, normalize relations with Cuba, and announce his sweeping community college plan in recent weeks. It’s also why the President should add a section about cannabis to his speech.
Some issues advance because of forceful and unifying leadership from politicians, but more often progress happens and politicians take notice. Gay marriage and relations with Cuba had evolved so far in the public debate that eventually courts and elected leaders came around in a way that was unforeseen even a few years ago. Marijuana policy is following a similar arc. Twenty three states and the District of Columbia have now have legalized cannabis for medical or recreational use. Most of these laws have come from citizen referenda and many of the states in question have Republican legislatures.
This isn’t a fringe issue any more. In fact, a coalition of libertarians, millennials, social liberals, medical experts, patients’ rights advocates, economists, and law enforcement officials, have moved marijuana smack in the middle of the mainstream of policy.
But the President doesn’t have to be pro-pot to take some smart and needed steps to clear up some of the odd disconnections that exist in a country where states have made uses of marijuana legal while the federal government hasn’t caught on.
Here are three common sense executive actions that the President should announce tonight that would set the table for a more sober pot policy:
1. Make it legal for scientists to study the benefits of marijuana:
There is now broad consensus in the medical community that there are legitimate and hugely helpful uses of cannabis as treatment for many diseases and ailments. For example, the oils have been shown to reduce seizures in children with epilepsy and the plant is in wide use to help soldiers calm the symptoms of PTSD. But in a bizarre Catch 22, the only way to study marijuana is to be in violation of federal law that still makes it illegal to own the stuff.
Cannabis is considered a Class 1 narcotic by the Food and Drug Administration. As such, it is treated as though it has high abuse potential and zero medicinal value (even Cocaine isn’t Class 1). Because of this federal regulation, marijuana can’t be used in a study or even transported to a clinician’s lab. In his address this evening, the President should announce he is asking the FDA to review whether marijuana should be reclassified so we can conduct further scientific research.
2. Announce that states rights will be respected on marijuana laws:
State legislators and voters have set up regimes in their states with laws, regulations, and taxes for marijuana. However, a law abiding citizen of Connecticut or Alabama could still find themselves at the wrong side of a federal indictment because of the schizophrenia that exists between federal and state law enforcement.
For the most part, the Justice Department has taken an unofficial hands off policy. Still, if the President drops a line or two into his speech on Tuesday that makes it clear he respects the rights of the states here, it will calm the concerns of many in those jurisdictions, encourage investment, and also probably get both sides of the aisle clapping at once in a Congress where that rarely happens.
3. Deregulate the banking industry for marijuana businesses.
Drug-related crime is down in states that have legalized some uses of marijuana. Just as drug reform advocates predicted, when you lift an industry out of the black market, regulate it, and tax it, the criminals move on to other things. However, because of the federal banking regulations, lawful marijuana businesses can’t use normal banks. Because of this one crime is on the rise: business having stashes of cash that they can’t deposit anywhere stolen.
This isn’t an easy problem to untangle because of the thicket of anti-money laundering laws that are on the books and the different bank charter rules in the 50 states. Still, the area is ripe for executive action that few could disagree with: order the treasury department to review the laws to accommodate legal marijuana businesses.
If we want to encourage a stable and well-regulated industry, the first step may be to loosen the rules that keep the operating cash, profits, and even the collected taxes in shoe boxes rather than checking accounts.
These proposals may seem procedural and “small ball” on paper. You can also be sure taking action on marijuana reform would lead to a few cartoons of the president wearing a Rastafarian hat and smoking a blunt. But the best of all political positions is the one that’s actually popular even though your opponents think it;s not.
The American people and particularly those who have been opting out of elections — younger citizens and independents — support the idea of legal and well-regulated marijuana. And while older and more conservative Americans are still not comfortable with the idea, true libertarians would be with the President on this one.
A critique many have about President Obama is that he doesn’t take the lead on issues and instead compromises to try for the best deal he can for the American people. Here’s a chance to do both.
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