Originally from Cincinnati, OH, Kate Harsh is a sophomore in the Vanderbilt School of Engineering. She is an Engineering Science major, an Engineering Management minor, and is Pre-Med. Despite the fact that much of her coursework focuses on science and engineering, she has been interested in politics since her freshman year of high school and is particularly interested in the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict. In addition to VPR, Kate is involved in starting up a Vanderbilt chapter of Advocates for World Health, is a mentor in The Afterschool Program (TAP), and is a member of the Society of Women Engineers and of Pi Beta Phi sorority. This is Kate's second year on the Editorial Board and Layout Team of Vanderbilt Political Review.
On the first day of 2014, Colorado became the first state to legally allow the sale of marijuana for recreational purposes to anyone 21 or older. This happened after Colorado’s Amendment 64 passed in November 2012 with 55% of Coloradans voting in favor. With this legalization, more attention has turned toward the Obama administration as legalization advocates push to spread the success in Colorado elsewhere.
Last August, the Department of Justice stated that it would not challenge state laws that legalize marijuana and will instead focus on serious trafficking and keeping the drug away from children. However, under the Controlled Substance Act, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I substance which is “considered the most dangerous class…with a high potential for abuse and potentially severe psychological and/or physical dependence.” As a Schedule I drug, it is on the same level as heroine, LSD, and ecstasy (MDMA), and ranked as more dangerous than Schedule II substances, which include cocaine and methamphetamine. Therefore, even though it is legal in Colorado and Washington, federal law still states that possession and sale of marijuana is illegal and punishable by up to life in prison.
The administration has already been criticized for its fuzzy stance on the issue, and the success of the “experiment” in Colorado is only leading to more pressure on the President. In late January, President Obama said in an interview with The New Yorker that he thinks weed is less dangerous than alcohol in terms of its impact on the consumer and referred to cocaine and meth as “harder drugs,” as compared to marijuana. Although Obama quickly followed his statement up saying that he does not at all encourage the use of marijuana, legalization advocates have responded with a push for more relaxed marijuana laws.
On February 12, eighteen members of Congress urged the President to take action regarding the Schedule I classification of marijuana in a bipartisan letter. They pointed out his inconsistencies, saying, “You said that you don’t believe marijuana is any more dangerous than alcohol: a fully legalized substance…Marijuana, however, remains listed in the federal Controlled Substances Act at Schedule I, the strictest classification.”
While Obama has not specifically addressed the letter, he was asked in an interview with CNN if he was considering changing the classification of marijuana from a Schedule I narcotic. His immediate response was that “what is and isn’t a Schedule I narcotic is a job for Congress.” Even when directly asked if he supported the movement, Obama gave a vague response that did not answer the question and instead talked about how the incarceration model hasn’t produced the desired results and how a major goal is to keep marijuana, alcohol, cigarettes, and other harder drugs, away from children.
In general, Obama’s statements on marijuana have been vague and disappointing to his supporters. Kevin Sabet, an assistant professor at the University of Florida’s Drug Policy Institute, said that the administration has a “bad political problem” when it comes to pot, and that they are trying to avoid alienating any voting blocks by giving committed responses or taking action. Regardless, the experiment in Colorado has been largely successful and a CNN/Opinion Research poll from this January found that national support for marijuana legalization is now at 55%. Even some members of the Republican Party have begun to shift their stance on the issue; Texas Governor Rick Perry recently advocated for decriminalizing marijuana.
Pressure on the President is mounting. Eventually, the Obama administration will have to clear the smoke and stop giving hazy answers to questions regarding marijuana legalization and policies. Though his rationale isn’t a mystery, he has been able to get away with vague, noncommittal responses. However, legalization of marijuana could potentially be in voters’ hands this year in states including Alaska, Oregon, California, New Jersey, and more. Legalization is gathering momentum and will continue to put pressure on the White House to take a stand in the near future.