Obama to Medical Marijuana Users: Go Forth and Toke

The president reiterated his support for medical marijuana on national television.

A mother prepares a marijuana-based medication to treat her seven-year-old daughter's seizures. (Photo: Suzanne Kreiter/Getty Images)

Apr 20, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

When 23 states and the District of Columbia give something the legal go-ahead, it becomes a whole lot easier for politicians to speak up in favor. That populist principle was demonstrated again last night when President Barack Obama reiterated his support for medical marijuana in the third installment of CNN’s chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta’s documentary series on weed.

The commander in chief, who admits he smoked pot recreationally in his youth, also expressed support for turning away from the punitive response to drug use that has resulted in nonviolent drug offenders making up more than 50 percent of the federal prison population.

“I’m on record as saying that not only do I think carefully prescribed medical use of marijuana may in fact be appropriate and we should follow the science as opposed to ideology on this issue, but I'm also on record as saying that the more we treat some of these issues related to drug abuse from a public health model and not just from an incarceration model, the better off we’re going to be,” Obama told Gupta.

Gupta himself publicly advocated against legalization before reversing course in 2013, when he apologized in an editorial for underestimating marijuana’s medical potential. His personal experience is part of what Gupta is calling the “medical marijuana revolution,” and the president’s comments reflect the change as well. As recently as 2013, a spokesperson for Obama told reporters that Gupta’s change of mind had not swayed the White House toward decreasing its federal crackdown on medical marijuana. So last night’s statements are further evidence of a shift. Americans overwhelmingly support legalizing pot for medicinal purposes—77 percent of them, according to the Pew Research Center’s most recent polling from 2013. For the first time ever, more than half of Americans support legalization of marijuana for recreational use too.

“The [president’s] statements are definitely a good indicator that the administration is going to continue its policy of not overtly interfering with medical marijuana programs in terms of criminal enforcement,” Morgan Fox of the nonpartisan policy group Marijuana Policy Project told TakePart. “Hopefully it will at least show people that there’s nothing to be afraid of, and that this isn’t a fringe issue.”

As support for medical marijuana has increased, so has the range of illnesses and ailments that doctors and researchers say can be treated with it. From treating veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, to cancer patients, to children who endure seizures, the list of practical medical uses for marijuana just keeps growing. It’s hard to find someone who hasn’t been impacted in some way by an affliction on the growing list of illnesses treatable with medical marijuana. That firsthand experience is part of why public support has grown in recent years.

A bill introduced in March by Sens. Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Rand Paul would eliminate two of the strongest barriers to federal dollars contributing to research on medical marijuana, opening the door for doctors who want to know what else can be treated with the drug. The sweeping legislation would also reschedule marijuana from the Drug Enforcement Administration’s strictest classification, which it currently shares with heroin; protect medical marijuana patients and their doctors from federal prosecution; and free up banks to work with the growing number of recreational marijuana businesses in states such as Colorado and Washington.

When Gupta asked him about the bill, Obama replied, “I think I’d have to take a look at the details” before describing his support for medical marijuana, sidestepping the question of the legislation’s potential impact on the drug’s recreational use. While speaking in Jamaica earlier this month, Obama told the audience he didn’t anticipate legalization at the federal level anytime soon. The president’s stance on broader legalization seems relatively unchanged: While he says he’s not going to devote federal resources to prosecuting people in states that have legalized marijuana, he’s not about to proactively push to change federal laws that classify the drug as an illegal substance.

“It would be great to see the president ask Congress to remove marijuana from the [controlled substances] schedule,” said Fox. “I just don’t know if we can expect anybody at the federal level to necessarily go out on a limb yet.”

For families and individuals who have finally found relief through pot after years of pain and illness, the revolution can’t come soon enough. Consider mom turned medical marijuana activist Shona Banda. The Kansas resident uses cannabis oil to cope with Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, and will appear in court Monday to fight for custody of her son. Authorities took the 11-year-old away after he challenged a D.A.R.E. officer who spoke disparagingly about marijuana at his school. Banda says cannabis oil keeps her symptoms at bay. After her son relayed his mom’s story to the police officer at his school, their home was searched and, according to an investigation by journalist Ben Swann, a judge ultimately ordered Banda’s son to be removed from her home. Fellow activists will rally to support her at the courthouse on Monday during her custody hearing.