Why Obama says marijuana should be a public health issue

In an interview with Rolling Stone, President Obama said he believes marijuana should be treated, as a public heath issue, like cigarettes and alcohol.

Brennan Linsley/AP/File
Different strains of cannabis are displayed for sale at a dispensary in Denver, Colo. in 2013.

Marijuana should be treated as a "public health issue, the same way we do with cigarettes or alcohol," said President Obama in a post-election interview with Rolling Stone. 

In the interview made public this week, the president, who has admitted to smoking marijuana in his younger days, clarified that he is "not somebody who believes that legalization is a panacea." 

"But," he continued, "I do believe that treating this as a public-health issue, the same way we do with cigarettes or alcohol, is the much smarter way to deal with it." 

His remarks were made one day after voters approved eight state marijuana ballot initiatives, making medical marijuana legal in more than half of the 50 states and recreational marijuana legal in eight. But the momentum of the marijuana legalization movement has been called into question in the weeks since, with president-elect Donald Trump's nomination of US Sen. Jeff Sessions for attorney general, as Steven Porter reported for The Christian Science Monitor last week: 

[F]ederal law continues to ban the substance nationwide, and the announcement that US Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama is President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for attorney general, could bring the marijuana legalization movement to a screeching halt. The choice of Mr. Sessions is seen by some analysts as a signal that conservative social values could now take precedence over states rights – especially since recreational pot dispensaries are in mostly "blue" Democratic states.

Pro-marijuana state laws have blossomed in recent years under a lax federal enforcement policy. But Sessions, who served previously as attorney general of his home state, and whom Trump described as "a world-class legal mind," has long been a vocal opponent of marijuana legalization, raising the possibility that he could lead a charge in asserting federal control over drug policy.

In the Rolling Stone interview, Obama said it was "untenable over the long term" for the Justice Department and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to enforce "a patchwork of laws, where something that's legal in one state could get you a 20-year prison sentence in another." 

Typically, he explained, drug classifications are changed not by presidential edict, but legislatively or through the DEA. 

"As you might imagine, the DEA, whose job it is historically to enforce drug laws, is not always going to be on the cutting edge about these issues," he added. 

But while some public health analysts applaud how legalizing marijuana cuts down on drug-related mass incarceration, legalization is not an end-all solution and will require regulation and nuance going forward, they say. 

"I’m delighted that we’re going to see an end to young people being criminalized and facing jail sentences or prison sentences, and having a criminal record which will impact them, perhaps for life," Vaughan Rees, director of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Center for Global Tobacco Control, told Boston Magazine following Massachusetts's vote to legalize recreational marijuana in November. Massachusetts is dealing with an opium overdose epidemic and many public health officials opposed legalization for recreational use. 

However, he added, the legalization raises new concerns over whether marijuana sellers will use similar marketing strategies as tobacco and alcohol companies have used to appeal to young people. 

Ultimately, Dr. Rees explained, it's important to remember that, though legal in a growing number of states, marijuana is still a drug with public health consequences. 

"I don’t think we’ve done a good job of thinking through the consequences of making a drug that is dependence-forming legal," he said. 

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