What if the President Smoked Pot?


I'm reading William Saletan unpack the latest antismoking bill, and although I don't have a great framework for evaluating drug regulation, it seems to make a lot of sense. Rather than take steps to outlaw cigarettes, the law is a practical response to the question: How can we make this safer? It allows the FDA to alter the harmful chemistry of cigarettes and expands approval of nicotine gum and patches, among other things. And it makes me wonder: Why can't other drug policies be practical responses the same question?

Saletan has this great kicker of a final paragraph:

If you want to know what Obama really thinks about tobacco, don't read his lips. Read his teeth. To relieve his addiction and protect his health, he's been chewing nicotine gum. The law he just signed authorizes the FDA to expedite approval of nicotine lozenges, gum, and patches. It encourages the agency to broaden the grounds for prescribing such products and to authorize their "extended use." It puts regulators smack in the middle of the nicotine business so they can turn it to better use. If only all our drug policies were this rational.

If only, indeed. While reading the piece I found myself wondering what kind of policy for say, marijuana, we might adopt if the president were a recently regular pot smoker.

To be sure, I'm under no illusion that the cigarette law recently enacted is the singular product of Obama's tobacco addiction, despite the parallels drawn in the that paragraph. Saletan reports that the country's biggest tobacco company, Altria, helped to write the bill. Altria and other tobacco companies, Saletan said, are increasingly feeling the heat to make alternative tobacco products -- like tablets and snus -- contain fewer carcinogens in reaction to public opinion on the issue of tabacco safety.

But at the same time, the government would be insane to outlaw cigarettes. People will just find other places to buy them. Obama, as Saletan rightly notes, has had every reason to quit smoking -- for his wife, his kids, the Fox News cameras -- and he's still struggling. What happens when you outlaw a product with that kind of demand that cannot be met by the legal market? It goes underground.

Which brings us to drugs. The government's effort to manage tobacco rather than make it illegal is exactly what belongs in the debate over pot and other illegal substances that could, at the very least, provide significant boons to medical pharmacology. The FDA has rejected the possibility of making cigarettes illegal by saying the underground product would be "even more dangerous than those currently marketed." So when you make popular products illegal, it has the potential to make those products more dangerous. Gee, ya think?

I know that Gee, ya think is about as far as you can get from a comprehensive plan for the controlled legalization of marijuana and other substances. But let's be adults here. Obama understands the limits of cigarette law because he understands the market for cigarettes. Maybe what the drug debate really needs is a joint in the West Wing.

When the president does it...

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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