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Steven Nelson, U.S. News & World Report
President Barack Obama said Thursday it's not his administration's job to reschedule marijuana, but supporters of rescinding the drug's federal classification as one of the most dangerous narcotics say the president is confused and should act immediately.
"What is and isn't a Schedule I narcotic is a job for Congress," Obama told Jake Tapper of CNN. "It's not something by ourselves that we start changing. No, there are laws under – undergirding those determinations."
Marijuana advocates point to the U.S. Code and say that's not entirely accurate.
The 1970 Controlled Substances Act, which created five tiers of restricted drugs, says the attorney general may "remove any drug or other substance from the schedules if he finds that the drug or other substance does not meet the requirements for inclusion in any schedule."
If a substance is banned by international treaties – as marijuana is – the law grants the attorney general the power to place it "under the schedule he deems most appropriate."
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., tells U.S. News it's "very clear" that the law "actually permits reclassification administratively."
"I don't dispute that Congress could and should make the change, but it's also something the administration could do in a matter of days and I hope they will consider it," says Blumenauer, who is currently circulating a letter among colleagues asking Obama to do so. Eight members of Congress have signed the letter so far.
Schedule I drugs are deemed to have a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical value.
Blumenauer says it's clear marijuana doesn't belong in the highest schedule alongside heroin and LSD. He says it does have accepted medical value in 20 states and Washington, D.C., where its use for certain conditions is permitted, and that it's relatively safe compared to other drugs – notably cocaine and methamphetamine, which are ranked Schedule II.
Among the benefits of rescheduling pot, Blumenauer says, is easing banking restrictions for state-permitted recreational and medical marijuana shops, which mainly deal in cash because banks fearing federal penalties refuse their business.
"It's a common-sense approach that would allow us to move on," he says. "We're in this 'Alice in Wonderland' world where the country has moved on, but we're still arresting more than two-thirds of a million people a year for something 58 percent of the population believes should be legal."
Obama told The New Yorker in a story published earlier this month that pot is safer to consume than alcohol, thrilling marijuana activists. But his reluctance to reschedule it accordingly is a frustration.
"It's very unfortunate that President Obama appears to want to pass the buck to Congress when it comes to marijuana laws, especially when his State of the Union speech this week focused on actions he can take to move America forward without having to wait for the legislative branch to get its act together," says Tom Angell, chairman of the group Marijuana Majority.
"If the president truly believes what he says about marijuana, he has a moral imperative to make the law match up with his views and the views of the majority of the American people, without delay," Angell says.
Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), says rescheduling marijuana "is not 'a job for Congress,' as the president says."
"The whole point of the law is to set up a process for scheduling of drugs and delegate it to the executive branch so Congress doesn't have to concern itself with that level of minutia," Riffle says.
Scheduling decisions often are handled by the Drug Enforcement Administration, an agency supervised by the Department of Justice, Riffle says.
The MPP is currently petitioning Obama to reschedule the drug.
One possible snag for reformers is fierce opposition to marijuana policy reform from DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart, who called marijuana an "insidious drug" during a June 2012 House committee hearing. During a closed-door Jan. 22 speech, Leonhart reportedly contradicted Obama's position that pot is less harmful than alcohol, earning a standing ovation from a crowd of sheriffs.
The MPP launched a petition Monday asking Obama to fire Leonhart. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., demanded her resignation Wednesday and Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., denounced her as "completely incompetent and unknowledgeable."
"The president famously said he has bigger fish to fry, but he has some people in his administration who are still frying those fish," Blumenauer says.
Blumenauer calls Leonhart's position "goofy," but also says he's focused on rescheduling pot and is "less concerned about whether the woman stays or is fired."
If Obama were to approve administrative rescheduling, he might find a willing participant in Attorney General Eric Holder, who is currently soliciting clemency applications from prisoners convicted of drug possession and who announced Aug. 29 his department would not sue to block the opening of marijuana stores in Colorado and Washington.
Colorado and Washington state residents voted to legalize recreational marijuana in November 2012. The New Hampshire House of Representatives voted to follow suit Jan. 15, but the bill is in limbo because of opposition from the governor and upper chamber. Voters in Alaska, Arizona, California, Oregon and Washington, D.C., may vote on legalizing recreational use later this year.
"The public's not waiting, and within two or three years it's going to be game over and it will be treated just like alcohol," Blumenauer predicts. He plans to cast a ballot for legalization in November.