Obama on Pot Legalization: 'It's Important for It to Go Forward'

That's his newest position on the experiments in Colorado and Washington, though he stopped short of endorsing legalization elsewhere.
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In the course of being profiled for an article in The New Yorker, President Obama told the magazine's editor, David Remnick, the following things about smoking marijuana:

  • "I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person."
  • "I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.” In fact, it is less dangerous than alcohol "in terms of its impact on the individual consumer."
  • “Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do. And African-American kids and Latino kids are more likely to be poor and less likely to have the resources and the support to avoid unduly harsh penalties."
  • “We should not be locking up kids or individual users for long stretches of jail time when some of the folks who are writing those laws have probably done the same thing.” 
  • "Those who argue that legalizing marijuana is a panacea and it solves all these social problems I think are probably overstating the case."

Finally, and most notably, Obama said of the two states experimenting with legalized marijuana, Colorado and Washington, that "it’s important for it to go forward because it’s important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished."

That limited endorsement of legalized marijuana goes farther than he (or any other sitting president) has ever gone on this issue. It also puts the president in rare agreement with National Review's editorial board. Obama's evolution made me curious about what his most recent National Drug Control Strategy documents have said about pot.

Here's an excerpt from the 2010 version (emphasis added throughout):

Keeping drugs illegal reduces their availability and lessens willingness to use them. That is why this Administration firmly opposes the legalization of marijuana or any other illicit drug. Legalizing drugs would increase accessibility and encourage promotion and acceptance of use. Diagnostic, laboratory, clinical, and epidemiological studies clearly indicate that marijuana use is associated with dependence, respiratory and mental illness, poor motor performance, and cognitive impairment, among other negative effects, and legalization would only exacerbate these problems.

Here's a passage from 2011:

The Administration steadfastly opposes drug legalization. Legalization runs counter to a public health approach to drug control because it would increase the availability of drugs, reduce their price, undermine prevention activities, hinder recovery support efforts, and pose a significant health and safety risk to all Americans, especially our youth. Many “quick fixes” for America’s complex drug problem have been presented throughout our country’s history. In the past half-century, these proposals have included calls for allowing the legal sale and use of marijuana. However, the complex policy issues concerning drug use and the disease of addiction do not lend themselves to such simple solutions.

Here's a passage from 2012:

While the Administration supports ongoing research into determining what components of the marijuana plant can be used as medicine, to date, neither the FDA nor the Institute of Medicine has found the marijuana plant itself to meet the modern standard for safe or effective medicine for any condition. The Administration also recognizes that legalizing marijuana would not provide the answer to any of the health, social, youth education, criminal justice, and community quality of life challenges associated with drug use.

And here's a passage from 2013:

The President’s inaugural 2010 National Drug Control Strategy laid out a comprehensive, evidence-based approach to reducing drug use and its consequences in theUnitedStates. In doing so, the Administration charted a “third way” in drug policy, a path that rejects the opposing extremes of legalization or a law enforcement-only “war on drugs.” Rather, the Strategy pursues a 21st century approach to drug policy that balances public health programs, effective law enforcement, and international partnerships.

We're unlikely to see a 2014 National Drug Control Strategy that says, "It's important for legalization experiments in Colorado and Washington to go forward." At least we now know that's due to the inertia of a federal bureaucracy filled with drug warriors, not the actual position of an elected official accountable to voters (a majority of whom actually now favor marijuana legalization).

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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