Bill Clinton voices his support of medical marijuana

Megan Hamilton, Digital Journal

Former president Bill Clinton has come out in favor of allowing individual states to decide whether or not to legalize marijuana, noting that there's increasing evidence that shows that medical marijuana can be beneficial for patients who are ill.

Clinton, who caused a mini-commotion when he claimed he didn't "inhale," told NBC's David Gregory during an interview in Denver last week, that he thinks there's plenty of evidence to argue in favor of medical marijuana. "I think there are a lot of unresolved questions, but I think we should leave it to the states," he said. "This is really a time when there should be laboratories of democracy, because nobody really knows where this is going."

However, there haven't been any laboratories of democracy, at least when it comes to this particular issue. The Obama administration has fought the legalization of medical marijuana early on. For the first four-and-a-half years of his presidency, Barack Obama spent $289 million on combating medical marijuana, according to a report from Americans for Safe Access, a pro-medical marijuana group. That's 4 percent of the Drug Enforcement Administration's 2011 and 2012 budgets, according to New Republic.
The administration, under Attorney General Eric Holder, nominated Michele Leonhart to head the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Leonhart is a leftover from the Bush administration who is a steadfast anti-medical-marijuana hard-liner. She redesigned the administration's stance on pot and went on the attack, New Republic reports.
The Obama administration pledged earlier to only go after dispensaries who violated federal and state law. However, soon after hiring Leonhart, it changed its tune and began prosecuting hundreds of medical marijuana cases — an astonishing 153 medical marijuana cases in its first four years. In Bush's entire eight-year term, only 163 cases were prosecuted, according to a study conducted by The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) in June 2013, New Republic reports.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Obama clarified his position:
"What I specifically said was that we were not going to prioritize prosecutions of persons who are using medical marijuana. I never made a commitment that somehow we were going to give carte blanche to large-scale producers and operators of marijuana--and the reason is, because it's against federal law," he said. "I can't nullify congressional law. I can't ask the Justice Department to say, 'ignore completely a federal law that's on the books.' What I can say is, 'Use your prosecutorial discretion and properly prioritize your resources to go after things that are really doing folks damage.' As a consequence, there haven't been prosecutions of users of marijuana for medical purposes."
However, in states where the sale of medical marijuana is legal, more than 335 defendants have been charged with federal medical marijuana crimes and 158 have gone to jail. At the time of the study, Obama had not issued any pardons or clemency for a medical marijuana defendant, New Republic reports.
Fortunately, the administration has softened its hard-line stance, at least somewhat, after initiatives passed in Colorado and Washington that legalized the sale of marijuana in both states. In these cases, Holder informed the governors of Washington and Colorado that the states would be allowed to regulate and implement the ballot initiatives that legalized the use of marijuana among adults, according to this article.
This decision comes at a good time — the legal marijuana industry is a hot commodity, New Republic reports. Worth $1.4 billion in 2013, it's expected to hit $2.3 billion in 2014, according to this report. Its projected worth within the next five years is $10.5 billion.
House Republicans, for their part, have also complicated the issue, having recently blocked funding for a new law in Washington D.C., that eliminates the threat of jail time for pot possession. According to the Washington Post, this law is one of the country's most liberal decriminalization efforts. Scheduled to take effect in July, the law makes possession in D.C. punishable by a mere $25 fine.
The Republicans may have slapped themselves in the face with this one however.
This effort, pushed forward by Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), may leave the city with no enforceable marijuana laws, effectively legalizing possession, marijuana advocates have said. The D.C. Attorney General's Office is reviewing that possibility and other possible fallout from the House's vote, the Post reports.
The issue of legalizing pot has always been a political football, even during Clinton's administration.
In his talk with Gregory last week, the former president didn't quite endorse legalization at the federal level, but said he supports states ability to experiment.
"There's all these questions, and I think that I like where it is now," he said, according to The Huffington Post. "If the state wants to try it, they can. And then they'll be able to see what happens."
Clinton's remarks are a reflection of how legalization has progressed from a once politically untouchable issue to a mainstream cause, said Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority in a statement to The Huffington Post.
"These comments from a skilled politician who knows how to stake out positions that resonate with the majority of voters show just how far the politics of this issue have shifted in favor of legalization," Angell said. "When Bill Clinton was president his administration tried to punish doctors just for discussing medical marijuana with their patients. Now he not only says that there's a lot of evidence to support medical marijuana, but he thinks states should be able to legalize marijuana outright without the feds standing in the way."
NORML reports that evidence shows that medicinal marijuana may be useful in the treatment of several diseases, including diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, alzheimer's disease, fibromyalgia, and many other diseases.
It is currently legal in 22 states and the District of Columbia, The Huffington Post reports.