*SEE UPDATE AT BOTTOM*
Jacob Sullum at the libertarian site Reason nails it (UPDATE: No, he didn’t nail it. See the update at the bottom of this post):
Obama at first denied that the executive branch has the power to reschedule drugs, saying “what is and isn’t a Schedule I narcotic is a job for Congress.” As Tapper pointed out, that’s not true. While Congress can amend the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) to increase or reduce restrictions on particular drugs, the statute also gives that power to the attorney general, who has delegated it to the Drug Enforcement Administration (a division of the Justice Department). In fact, the DEA has repeatedly rejected petitions to reschedule marijuana, most recently in 2011. I forget: Who was president then?
Apparently Obama forgot too. Obama often speaks as if he is an outside observer of his own administration—condemning excessively long prison sentences while hardly ever using his clemency power to shorten them, sounding the alarm about his own abuses of executive power in the name of fighting terrorism, worrying about the threat to privacy posed by surveillance programs he authorized. Now here he is, trying to distance himself from his own administration’s refusal to reclassify marijuana.
I think the only imaginable defense of Obama’s incoherent, hypocritical, immensely harmful marijuana position is that he’s gone further than any previous president towards admitting that throwing people in jail for pot use is an injustice.
But one, that’s damning with faint praise.
And two, Obama’s statements about pot come in the context of the most pro-pot-legalization American public since polling on the subject began. Obama deserves no points for timidly inching in the direction the American public is already running.
Mark Kleiman – who I don’t always agree with, but he’s a genuine expert in this area, and I trust him to know the facts – convincingly argues that it’s Reason’s Sullum, not Obama, who doesn’t understand the law and the President’s powers regarding marijuana’s legal status.
So administrative rescheduling would not make “medical marijuana,” or any other kind, legal at the federal level. Its practical effect would be identically zero.
What’s actually needed in the way of administrative action is to get the DEA and the Public Health Service out of the way of medical research, by breaking the University of Mississippi monopoly on research cannabis and eliminating the requirement that researchers using cannabis (but no other controlled drug) have the material “granted” to them by a federal agency rather than just going out and buying it. The Obama Administration can and should be criticized for not having taken those steps.
But “rescheduling” is a red herring dragged across the trail of policy reform.
UPDATE 2: See the comments for a lot of folks pushing back against Kleiman.