In his new profile of Obama, Remnick asked the president about the dangers of marijuana:
“As has been well documented, I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life. I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.”
Less dangerous, he said, “in terms of its impact on the individual consumer. It’s not something I encourage, and I’ve told my daughters I think it’s a bad idea, a waste of time, not very healthy.” What clearly does trouble him is the radically disproportionate arrests and incarcerations for marijuana among minorities. “Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do,” he said. “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.” But, he said, “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.”
Accordingly, he said of the legalization of marijuana in 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.”
I want to congratulate Remnick on asking the question which I have inexcusably failed to ask on the few occasions I’ve had the chance to grill the president. One key thing matters about this quote: the president of the US thinks a drug currently viewed by his own administration as the most dangerous kind of drug in existence is less harmful to the individual than alcohol. And that is one thing the federal government really can do: change the DEA’s classification of marijuana so that it complies with basic science and reality. When the government is loudly proclaiming something that a huge majority of reasonable people know is untrue, it is making an ass out of itself. The follow-up question is therefore: why, Mr president, does your own administration hold to a view about pot, with huge legal consequences for millions, that you do not share and for which there is no rational justification whatsoever?
But then, as is his wont, the president wandered around a bit in his own thoughts:
“Having said all that, those who argue that legalizing marijuana is a panacea and it solves all these social problems I think are probably overstating the case. There is a lot of hair on that policy. And the experiment that’s going to be taking place in Colorado and Washington is going to be, I think, a challenge.” He noted the slippery-slope arguments that might arise. “I also think that, when it comes to harder drugs, the harm done to the user is profound and the social costs are profound. And you do start getting into some difficult line-drawing issues. If marijuana is fully legalized and at some point folks say, Well, we can come up with a negotiated dose of cocaine that we can show is not any more harmful than vodka, are we open to that? If somebody says, We’ve got a finely calibrated dose of meth, it isn’t going to kill you or rot your teeth, are we O.K. with that?”
Please name someone who favors legalization who thinks it’s a “panacea” for “all these social problems”. Even I don’t believe that. I think legalizing it would be a net social good, with very few negative consequences, but of course there will be some who suffer from legalization, as well as complexities we don’t yet understand. So while I’m at it, here’s the most honest and persuasive essay on the cost-benefit analysis of legalizing weed I have yet read. It’s by Scott Alexander and its conclusion is that “there is not a sufficiently obvious order-of-magnitude difference between the costs and benefits of marijuana legalization for a evidence-based utilitarian analysis of costs and benefits to inform the debate.” And that’s why, in a nutshell, I’m fine with federalism on this, as I am with marriage equality.
Sullum parses Obama’s comments:
Obama is not really going out on a limb by acknowledging that alcohol, measured by acute toxicity, accident risk, and the long-term effects of heavy consumption, is more hazardous than marijuana. On the face of it, he would be taking a bigger risk by endorsing the theory of evolution. … To say that “it’s important for [legalization] to go forward” is a bigger step than the signals of prosecutorial forbearance the administration has offered so far. Obama seems to be saying he wants these experiments to succeed. In short, Obama is conceding that marijuana prohibition is unscientific and unjust. That is indeed a pretty big deal, assuming he does not find a way to wriggle out of it.
Obama circled back around and noted the new laws in both states could be “a challenge” because of the potential for legalization of other, harder types of drugs. He also noted he has advised his daughters not to smoke marijuana. So it wasn’t an outright endorsement. But the moment was still significant in several ways. In context of the United States’ long-running and highly problematic war on drugs, it is quite notable to have a president come out and say that marijuana isn’t nearly as harmful as it is often made out to be and to back serious changes in the legal regime governing the drug.
Ed Krayewski doubts Obama will act on this:
Given that Obama says he’s quit smoking cigarettes (which are kinda like weed to him) but still drinks socially (which he says could be more dangerous than pot) and has previously laughed off the suggestion that marijuana legalization would be beneficial (and continues to head a federal government waging a war on marijuana), his comments shouldn’t be interpreted as much more than off-the-cuff punditry.
Isaac Chotiner was put off by how Obama answered the question, and others:
It’s not just that the answer is now maddeningly long. Nor is it merely that Obama exhibits his annoying tic of stating his opponent’s case in the most extreme, over-the top way (who exactly thinks marijuana legalization is a “panacea” for solving “all these social problems?”) It’s also, again, the condescension. We know there are other sides to the issue. We know the issue is complex. We know there are slippery slope arguments about drug legalization. But either he doesn’t think that we know these things or, more damningly, he must remind us that he knows them, too.
The reason he does this, I would argue, is that he is more interested in telling us how he thinks than what he thinks.