Every so often, President Obama is confronted with young Americans who favor legalizing marijuana. He typically treats their enthusiasm for the issue as a joke, despite the fact that he almost certainly wouldn't be a successful politician today if he'd been arrested and convicted for smoking marijuana with The Choom Gang in his youth. Obama fleshed out his belief that young voters care too much about legalization in a sit-down that Vice published this week. The interviewer revealed that marijuana is the subject that online readers most wanted the president to address.
The Drug-Warrior-in-Chief's reply:
It shouldn't be young people's biggest priority.
Let's put it in perspective. Young people, I understand this is important to you. But you should be thinking about climate change, the economy, jobs, war and peace.
Maybe way at the bottom you should be thinking about marijuana.
A sensible point can be extracted from this mess. If a genie appeared to a young person and said that with a single wish they could either legalize marijuana, end climate change, assure a strong economy, or bring about a peaceful planet, it would indeed be wrongheaded to prioritize legal marijuana. But that isn't how politics works.
Most young people don't have actionable opinions about the right approach to climate change, the economy, jobs, or war and peace. And even if, against all odds, they happen to settle on the optimal solution to one of those incredibly complex, arguably intractable problems, it is relatively unlikely that they could successfully bring it about.
Meanwhile, many of these same young people have a settled, strongly held position on marijuana, an issue that they regard as comparatively straightforward. And if they mobilize, they have a realistic chance of ending prohibition in the next decade.
In their opinion and in mine, doing so would be a significant improvement in public policy that would meaningfully enrich the lives of many millions of people here and abroad. So I'd argue that their focus on the issue is entirely rational and salutary. And if they succeed in legalizing marijuana (they've done so in some states already), I imagine that they'll be more inclined to participate in the civic process going forward, having seen that activism can actually effect positive change.
Obama's skepticism of their priorities is ironic for the following reason:
Implicit in the legalization movement is the notion that the president, the executive branch he presides over, and law enforcement all over America spend far too much time and far too many resources waging a doomed campaign against marijuana use.
The young people to whom Obama addressed himself would be fully justified in reversing the criticism: "Given challenges like climate change, an uncertain economy, joblessness, and war, how can you justify spending perhaps $160 billion over the course of your tenure on marijuana prohibition? Isn't it the federal government, not us young people, that has irrationally prioritized marijuana policy? We're fighting for a more rational allotment of resources, where government funds are directed away from weed and toward challenges you listed as more pressing."
Obama went on to speak as if he himself understands marijuana prohibition to be a policy with lots of awful consequences. "There is no doubt that our criminal justice system generally is so skewed toward cracking down on nonviolent drug offenders that it has not just had a terrible effect on many communities, particularly communities of color, rendering a lot of folks unemployable because they got felony records," he declared. "Disproportionate prison sentences. It costs a huge amount of money to states. And a lot of states are starting to figure that out."
"What I'm encouraged by," he continued, "is that you're starting to see not just liberal Democrats but also some very conservative Republicans recognize, this doesn't make sense, including the libertarian wing of the Republican Party. And they see the money and how costly it is to incarcerate. But we may actually be able to make some progress on the decriminalization side. At a certain point, if enough states end up decriminalizing, Congress may then reschedule marijuana. But I always say to folks who support legalization or decriminalization that it's not a panacea."
A panacea: "a solution or remedy for all difficulties or diseases."
In all my years interviewing advocates of marijuana legalization, I have yet to encounter someone who believes that it is a solution or remedy for all difficulties. Rather, the young people who've made marijuana legalization a political priority have focused on details like the costs of the War on Drugs. The trends Obama declares himself encouraged by are a direct result of their tireless, noisy insistence on forcing politicians to confront a status quo policy that has been doing damage for decades.
The entirely of his Vice interview is here: