President Barack Obama leaves the podium after a speech at the White House on Jan. 29, 2016. (Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press)

Hoping Obama will change federal marijuana policy in 2016? Too bad

President Barack Obama says rescheduling marijuana on the federal list of controlled substances isn't on his list of end-of-term priorities; the matter is up to Congress

WASHINGTON – Marijuana advocates hoping for a substantial shift in federal marijuana policy in the last year of the Obama administration are likely to be disappointed.

At Friday’s press briefing, White House press secretary John Earnest said any progress on marijuana reform would need to come through Congress. President Barack Obama had signaled his position a day earlier at the House Democratic retreat in Baltimore, saying marijuana reform is not on his list of end-of-term priorities, according to Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn.

Cohen said he asked the president whether he wanted to “reschedule” marijuana. The federal government currently considers marijuana a Schedule I controlled substance, “the most dangerous class of drugs with a high potential for abuse and potentially severe psychological and/or physical dependence.” Many lawmakers want to see it moved to Schedule 2, which acknowledges the plant’s medical potential. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders wants to remove marijuana from the federal list of controlled substances altogether.

But Obama’s answer on the rescheduling was “disappointing,” Cohen said in an interview. “On marijuana, he gave the same answer as when I asked him seven years ago: ‘If you get me a bill, and get it on my desk, I’ll probably sign it,'” Cohen said (emphasis his).

At the briefing, Earnest clarified further. “There are some in the Democratic Party who have urged the president to take this kind of action. The president’s response was, ‘If you feel so strongly about it, and you believe there is so much public support for what it is that you’re advocating, then why don’t you pass legislation about it and we’ll see what happens.'”

Obama’s approach on the issue has long frustrated activists. “This isn’t the first time President Obama has unnecessarily tried to pass the buck on marijuana rescheduling to Congress,” Tom Angell of the pro-marijuana group Marijuana Majority said in an email. “It’s unacceptable and frankly embarrassing for a president who has so nonchalantly acknowledged his own marijuana use to allow the federal government to continue classifying cannabis in such an inappropriate category.”

There is an administrative process in place for the DEA to reschedule or deschedule a drug. But as the Brookings Institution has noted, the DEA has historically not been eager to take action on this front. “Four petitions that have been initiated to reschedule marijuana or remove it from the schedules entirely have been denied or stalled by DEA with disposition times ranging from five to more than 20 years,” their report found.

The DEA is reviewing another petition to reschedule pot, but given the history, most observers are skeptical that anything will change this time around.

“I don’t think they’re doing anything,” Cohen said. “They’ve slow-walked it for all these years.” He’d like to see the White House be more vocal about the process. “The president could just tell them to get it done,” he said.

The latest public opinion polls show broad support not just for marijuana reform, but outright legalization: Fifty-eight percent of Americans want to see marijuana use fully legalized, according to the latest Gallup polling on the issue. And a 2015 CBS news poll found that 84 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana for medical use.

Moving marijuana to Schedule II of the Controlled Substances Act is a more modest step than full legalization or legalization for medical purposes. It would simply remove some of the barriers to research on uses of marijuana, barriers that the Brookings Institution recently said were “stifling” medical research.

Among people who study the issue, there’s near universal agreement that marijuana doesn’t belong in the same category of substance as heroin, as even the DEA has finally acknowledged. The consensus among researchers is that it’s a lot less dangerous than alcohol, too.

A federal classification that stands in such stark opposition to expert consensus “breeds contempt for the government,” Cohen said. But if this week’s remarks are any indication, addressing that contempt is not high on the White House priority list for 2016.