Keith Stroup – The Gift from Obama


FRONTLINE "Dreams of Obama"

Many marijuana smokers were thrilled when Barack Obama became president since he’d previously “outed” himself in his 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father. In his memoir, Obama acknowledges that he and his friends in the “Choom Gang” were regular marijuana smokers during his high school years in Hawaii, a practice he apparently continued while attending Occidental College in LA for two years followed by two years at Columbia University in New York.

This was further confirmed by David Maraniss’ in his 2012 biography titled Barack Obama: The Story, which provided more details and suggested that Obama had been a serious pothead during his youth, favoring local Hawaii strains such as Maui Wowie, Kauai Electric, Puna Bud, and Kona Gold; none of which apparently limited his ability to excel academically, as he was subsequently President of the Harvard Law Review in 1991.

Many of those same smokers became disillusioned when President Obama did nothing to advance legalization during his first term, and on the occasion when the topic was raised by a White House petition or otherwise, he refused to treat marijuana legalization as a serious policy topic, instead making jokes about what all those petition signers must have been smoking – deflecting a question on a hot-button social issue, but it also felt insulting to those of us who smoke.

Perhaps because I have lived in Washington, DC for 48 years and have seen too many administrations come and go, I did not expect Obama to do anything significant to advance marijuana legalization during his first term. Controversial policy changes generally come, if at all, during a president’s second term, when he faces no future elections, and is sometimes willing to risk some of his personal popularity to embrace a policy on principle.

That appears to be precisely what has occurred with Obama.

When both Colorado and Washington voters approved full marijuana legalization in 2012, the federal government was faced with the option of whether to go to federal court and seek to enjoin the provisions allowing for the licensing off marijuana growers and distributors under the Supremacy Clause of the US Constitution. No state has a legal obligation to mimic federal law, so any state could remove its laws against marijuana.  When a state adopts what the courts call a “positive conflict” with federal law, however, the federal law prevails. Most legal observers believe the Department of Justice would have prevailed in such a legal showdown.

In a move that surprised most, the Obama Justice Department took a different tact, and one that was invaluable to the legalization movement – they issued a series of memos by Deputy Attorney General Cole laying out several criteria under which any state legalization law, including both medical use and full legalization, would be evaluated.  The feds would stand down and permit these laws to be fully implemented, as long as the states made a good-faith effort to minimize adolescent use and avoid diversion of marijuana to other states where it remains illegal under state law.

Speaking with ABC’s Barbara Walters in December of 2012, the president explained it didn’t make sense to prosecute people for recreational drug use in states where it is legal, saying it would be a waste of federal resources.

“Well, I wouldn’t go that far. But what I think is that, at this point, Washington and Colorado, you’ve seen the voters speak on this issue. And as it is, the federal government has a lot to do when it comes to criminal prosecutions. It does not make sense from a prioritization point of view for us to focus on recreational drug users in a state that has already said that under state law that’s legal.”

In other words, President Obama has given the legalization movement 2-3 years to demonstrate that we can legalize, regulate and tax marijuana in a responsible manner, without the fear of federal interference – a sort of free-zone until the end of his second term. That is an incredible gift, and should allow us to demonstrate that legalization works better than prohibition for everyone; law-enforcement as well as consumers, and that it will raise a significant new stream of badly-needed revenue for the states.  If we succeed, it is hard to imagine the next administration, whether Republican or Democrat, will have the political support required to attempt to roll-back our progress at the state level.

Of course, we eventually need to change federal law so we do not have to rely on the deferential discretion of the Department of Justice for these innovative new state laws to be implemented. At the end of alcohol prohibition, the government ended federal prohibition and allowed the various states to adopt whatever alcohol policy they wanted; they could keep alcohol illegal, or experiment with different models of legalization – that is the goal we should have for ending marijuana prohibition.

At the moment however, we simply do not have the support in Congress to achieve that.

Legalization in Colorado and Washington is incredibly important, not just to those living in one of the two states but to the entire country. We must implement these legalization laws, as well as a couple of new states expected to approve full legalization this November, in a manner that reassures the general public, especially non-smokers, that they have nothing to fear from marijuana legalization.  This is not the time for confrontational tactics, but for bridge-building and honest communication about what a just and fair legalization system should look like.

A big piece of that challenge will be to convince smokers that we all have the obligation of acting responsibly as we exercise our newly-won freedom.

About Author

Keith Stroup is a Washington, DC public-interest attorney who founded NORML in 1970. Stroup first smoked marijuana when he was a first-year law student in 1965 and has been a regular smoker and a cannabis activist ever since. In 1992 Stroup was the recipient of the Richard J. Dennis Drugpeace Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Drug Policy Reform presented by the Drug Policy Foundation; in 2010 he received the Al Horn Award from the NORML Legal Committee for a lifetime of work advancing the cause of justice; and in 2012, Stroup received the High Times Lifetime Achievement Award. Keith currently serves as NORML's Legal Counsel and on NORML's Board of Directors. He resides in Falls Church, Virginia with his wife.


  1. President Obama did give our movement a nice “gift” when he acknowledged publicly that cannabis is less dangerous than alcohol; but, the memos issued through the Justice Department are definitely NOT helpful for people living in jurisdictions where their U.S. Attorney’s Office chooses to ignore these suggestions about prioritization of resources. The duplicitous memos have led to prosecution of providers who were following state law, and now sit in prison (or, in the case of Richard Flor, have died in prison from neglect because his medical conditions were not taken seriously).
    Our lawmakers have no authority to dictate what is medically useful, according to the Controlled Substances Act itself; and, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws has the opportunity to drastically improve our support within Congress and among the ‘non-smoking’ public by honestly educating people on the facts at hand. The current law does not say cannabis is not medicine because it is “schedule I”; rather, the listing of a substance as “schedule I” requires there to be no accepted medical use for that substance — which is obviously not true of cannabis, therefore this plant must (legally!!) be removed from “schedule I”.
    We are not just talking semantics here, we are talking about a fundamental misrepresentation of the law passed by Congress in 1970. Done properly, bringing these facts to light is a great way to work with our government officials to resolve this conflict as expediently as possible. This should not be viewed as a tactic for confrontation; but, rather a practical way for people on all sides of this issue to embrace the rule of law — to respect the moral and scientific principles which ensure our nation’s legendary strength and integrity.

    Once the federal government recognizes medical use of this plant as (relatively) safe and efficacious, then proper regulations can be enacted through state and local governments. Until then, everyone associated with this plant is in very real danger. Platitudes and memorandums are no match for federal law…

    • Unfortunately for us, the federal government has already recognized the medicinal value of marijuana; as is evident in their US patent # 6630507. While its almost too hypocritical to believe, one must consider the source – the federal government.

      • I am aware the federal government has patents on medicinal properties of cannabis, and they have issued patents to certain pharmaceutical manufacturers for products which contain both synthetic and natural cannabinoids — which have been listed as “schedule III”, gained approval from the FDA, and are available on the market today. My point is the Controlled Substances Act explicitly states that any substance having medically useful properties can no longer be classified as “schedule I”. There is protocol for the required process of reclassification detailed in the CSA, but it is being ignored by government officials and reform advocates — who appear to believe this process will lead only to pharmaceutical control over all use of cannabis. They fail to consider how rescheduling cannabis, even to “schedule III”, will undermine the government’s long-standing legal justification of denying our right to use this plant for religious purposes — the “compelling interest”, which has swayed the courts to deny our basic freedom in the past, will no longer have merit if we are not talking about a “schedule I” substance that (by definition) has no medical value, lack of accepted safety, and a high potential for abuse. This is why the government has so far refused to budge on the “schedule I” classification, because doing so means they have no right to prevent us from growing and using this plant as we see fit! Why NORML appears ignorant of these facts likely has to do with their own set of compelling interests…

  2. Obama hasn’t given us anything that can’t be taken away by the next administration. He needs to de-schedule cannabis.

  3. Carl Parsons on

    The fed is doing nothing but lying, and anyone that believes them are nothing but assholes, so keep believing them

Leave A Reply