Obama speaks out on marijuana. Why now?

Obama calls marijuana a 'bad habit and a vice,' but no more dangerous than alcohol. With Americans increasingly favoring legalization, he could be positioning his party to reap political rewards.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Pres. Barack Obama speaks at the Justice Department in Washington, Friday, Jan. 17. In an interview with the New Yorker, President Obama called marijuana a 'bad habit and a vice,' but no more dangerous than alcohol.

President Obama spoke out on marijuana in an interview with the New Yorker released Sunday. He told David Remnick, the magazine’s editor, that pot is not any more dangerous than alcohol or tobacco in terms of its impact on individuals.

“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,” Mr. Obama said.

The president added that he was concerned that minorities and lower-income Americans are disproportionately likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses.

“Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do,” he said.

Obama said it was important for state experiments to go forward in Colorado and Washington on the legalization of recreational marijuana use. But he urged a cautious approach to such state-by-state change, and said that legal pot won’t solve many social issues and could present some difficult slippery-slope arguments,

“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?” said Obama.

And as a parent the president said he’s warned Sasha and Malia about the dangers of the drug.

“I’ve told my daughters I think it’s a bad idea, a waste of time,” said Obama.

Legalization moves in the states are certainly one reason why the president stepped warily into the public debate over this issue in his New Yorker interview. But the larger issue for the administration here may be the fast-changing attitudes of voters toward the issue.

Last October Gallup found that for the first time a majority of Americans, 58 percent, said marijuana should be legalized. In that Gallup survey 39 percent said the drug should remain illegal.

That’s a huge swing in national attitudes from 1969, when Gallup first asked the question. That year only 12 percent of respondents said they favored legal pot.

This change began to really accelerate in the late 1990s, according to Gallup data. In the last year alone US support for legalization jumped 10 percentage points.

“Success at the ballot box ... in Colorado and Washington may have increased Americans’ tolerance for marijuana legalization,” writes Gallup’s Art Swift.

A January CNN poll mirrored Gallup’s results, with 55 percent of respondents saying marijuana use should not be against the law.

As George Zornick notes in the Washington Post “Plum Line” political blog, it’s likely legal marijuana will be on the ballot in Florida this year, and Democrats could use the issue to boost turnout among young voters. Alaska, Arizona, California, and Oregon similarly may have pot votes this fall.

Whether he meant to or not, Obama is positioning himself and his party in such a way that “many Democrats feel could reap serious political rewards in the coming months and years,” writes Zornick.

Critics of legal pot maintain that loosening restrictions could lead to more underage use and motor vehicle accidents caused by high drivers. Any push for more widespread legalization is also likely to raise such difficult issues as the fate of current prison inmates who were convicted of marijuana offenses.

Furthermore, whatever one thinks about pot as a political issue, Obama’s words might still make parents across the nation wince.

“A lot of parents who want to discourage marijuana smoking in their kids are not going to thank him for it,” writes Martin Longman (who agrees in theory with Obama’s overall position) on the Washington Monthly’s “Political Animal” blog.

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