Colorado’s experiment with legalization of marijuana is only a few weeks old and already President Obama has influenced the national debate on this issue. In an interview with The New Yorker, he encouraged a few states to “go forward” with regulated pot markets despite federal laws – and official White House warnings – against marijuana.
His main reasons? Surprisingly, they have little to do with pot smoking itself, which he called “a bad habit and a vice” and which he wouldn’t want his own kids to take up, as he did in his youth. Rather, his reasons are relative to concerns other than the negative effects of marijuana and states promoting its use.
For one, said Mr. Obama, a higher proportion of minorities are being arrested for pot possession than whites in the United States. Legalization could end “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,” he said.
In other words, uneven enforcement of a law makes the law invalid. By that logic, many laws, such as on taxes and immigration, should be repealed. Is that what the president wants, rather than better enforcement?
Two, Obama claims marijuana is no “more dangerous than alcohol.” That’s true at the level of lethal toxicity for each substance. But while the study of alcohol’s effects on families, driving, and personal well-being is well established, the effects of marijuana are still being researched. A definitive comparison of pot and alcohol is premature, especially given that the potency of today’s pot is two or three times higher than in the past.
In addition, his comparison of these different substances implies that pot should be as legal and regulated as alcohol is. It would be difficult to roll back government control of alcohol sales because drinking is entrenched in much of society. But pot smoking is not entrenched. Half of likely voters in the US are opposed to legalization, according to a poll by Rasmussen Reports earlier this month, while 41 percent are in favor. Why make pot use as prevalent as alcohol use through government approval?
But besides questioning Obama’s reasons for supporting state moves toward legalization, Americans may wonder if the person who oversees enforcement of the federal Controlled Substances Act should be encouraging people to violate it. In addition, the president has not helped parents of teens who look for moral backup from elected leaders in arguing against pot use.
A president should be more concerned about statistics like this: About one in six 16-year-olds who tries marijuana becomes addicted to it, according to the National Institutes of Health. And a few studies show long-term damage to teens who have used pot regularly.
Also, federal law enforcement officials are increasingly concerned that pot smuggling is increasing out of states that have approved sales of marijuana for medicinal use.
Obama could have possibly made other arguments, such as decriminalizing use of marijuana or more forceful ways to push regular pot users into treatment programs. He would have found a broad consensus on those issues. But his near-endorsement of legal sales went too far.