Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) head Gil Kerlikowske said Tuesday that the country is "in the midst of a serious national conversation about marijuana" -- an at least rhetorical advance from his 2009 position that marijuana legalization is "not in the president's vocabulary and not in mine."
But they also come in a political context altered by last November's elections, when two states, Colorado and Washington, easily approved marijuana legalization initiatives. The use and possession of small amounts of marijuana by adults over 21 is now legal in both states, and officials in both are now grappling with the task of coming up with and implementing regulations for legal marijuana commerce. The federal government has yet to respond substantively as to whether or not it will seek to impede that process.
"Coming out of the recent election, it is clear that we're in the midst of a serious national conversation about marijuana," said Kerliwowske. "At President Obama's request, the Justice Department is reviewing the legalization initiatives passed in Colorado and Washington, given differences between state and federal law."
That was the extent of Kerlikowske's response, except for referring readers to a recent Barbara Walters interview with President Obama in which he said he wasn't ready "to go that far" when it came to the topic of pot legalization, but added that "we're going to need to have is a conversation about how do you reconcile a federal law that still says marijuana is a federal offense and state laws that say that it's legal."
The rhetorical shift was "pretty significant," said Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority, a recently-formed group calling for decriminalization or legalization.
"I guess it makes a difference when marijuana legalization gets more votes than your boss does in an important swing state, as happened in Colorado this last election," Angell said. "From 'legalization is not in my vocabulary and it's not in the president's,' as Gil Kerlikowske often used to say, to 'it is clear that we're in the midst of a serious national conversation about marijuana' is a pretty stark shift."
Actions speak louder than words, Angell said, but still…
"Of course, what really matters is to what extent the administration actually shifts enforcement priorities and budgets, but I sure do like hearing the US drug czar acknowledge the fact that marijuana legalization is a mainstream discussion that is happening whether he likes it or not."