Will marijuana legalization be Obama's legacy?

Do we see a pattern emerging? First, a long-time social taboo becomes much more mainstream. The President spends years opposing its normalization, then as states start acting on their own, he tries to jump out ahead of it by slowly embracing the shift in public opinion. That worked for Barack Obama on same-sex marriage, and it’s beginning to look like the same strategy is in play for marijuana legalization:

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President Barack Obama says smoking pot isn’t “more dangerous” than drinking alcohol.

“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,” Obama said in a lengthy profile in the current issue of the New Yorker magazine. “I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.”

Pressed by author David Remnick on the comparison, Obama said he thinks marijuana is less dangerous “in terms of its impact on the individual consumer.”  But he added, “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.”

Obama also told Remnick that he is troubled that “middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do. 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.”

That tends to be true, and also fits nicely within his narrative for 2014: inequality. There are other good reasons to support legalization, among them the increasingly ridiculous resources spent fighting an intoxicant not too different from the legal variety, the corrosive effect that has on civil rights, and the money spent on fighting this arm of the War on Drugs.

Nick Gillespie believes that Obama has one last chance to establish his legacy as the Commander in Choom Chief through marijuana legalization:

But there’s one thing left Obama could do to finally become the change he wanted to be: declare a swift and honorable peace in the decades-long war on pot. The drug war in toto has been a long-running and ineffective disaster that disrespects individual autonomy, corrupts law enforcement, and undermines the rule of law. By ending the war on pot, he would be remembered as a true visionary. …

If Obama announced that he was de-prioritizing the federal government’s war on pot—not even on all drugs, but just marijuana—he would almost certainly be joined by a growing number of libertarian Republicans who think drug policy is a state-level issue. Indeed, if Obama framed the issue explicitly in federalist terms, he could likely count on the support of characters such as Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan.

As important, he wouldn’t need congressional buy-in to get this party started. It’s fully within the president’s power—power that he has happily exceeded when it comes to waging wars overseas and delaying aspects of Obamacare—to start the process to reclassify pot from a Schedule I drug to something more credible (a Schedule I drug is deemed to have a high potential for abuse, no known or accepted use as medicine, and no reliable safe dose). That alone would kickstart a long overdue national conversation about the costs and benefits of prohibition.

If Obama really thinks pot is no more dangerous than alcohol and that the war on pot systematically screws over minorities, why should he have any hesitation in liberalizing the federal policies over which he has control? And using the bully pulpit to push for broader legislative change at the federal and state level? What is he waiting for, a third term?

The quick answer to Nick’s central question is that it appears now that Obama doesn’t have any hesitation. He’s just going to roll it out slowly, if he can avoid getting caught by surprise by his own Vice President, as he tried to do with his “evolving” on same-sex marriage. That way he can appear to be leading while he’s following public opinion, and minimize the political risk of getting out in front too far and too fast. It’s a smart strategy, even if it seems a bit telegraphed by now.

On the other hand, resistance to the rollout of legalized marijuana still exists, and it exists across the political spectrum. In response to Obama’s casual observation that pot isn’t any more dangerous than alcohol, former Congressman Patrick Kennedy — a fellow progressive — rises to rebut. Kennedy asserted on last night’s Hardball that marijuana today is not the same choom as in the 1970s:


“I think the president needs to speak to his NIH director in charge of drug abuse,” Kennedy said on MSNBC’s “Hardball” on Monday night. “[She] would tell the president that, in fact, today’s modern, genetically modified marijuana, so it’s much higher THC levels, far surpass the marijuana that the president acknowledges smoking when he was a young person.”

Kennedy said government research shows that marijuana is harmful.

“He is wrong when he says that it isn’t very harmful, because the new marijuana is not the old marijuana,” Kennedy said. “We need to have presidential decisions made based upon public health and the sound science that the federal government’s invested in.”

The former congressman said if the president believes alcohol is more dangerous, he should be concerned about legalizing and commercializing marijuana, because, Kennedy argues, America doesn’t want another Big Tobacco or Big Alcohol.

“I mean, if the president feels alcohol is worse than tobacco, what’s he prepared to do? And I’ll tell you, the president won’t be able to do a thing,” Kennedy said. “Why? Because alcohol is too powerful an industry to change. And right now, we have a chance to stop another for-profit industry from targeting our public health.”

USA Today also reported last night that the jury’s out on the relative safety between the two:

The president is obviously “not familiar with the science and frankly doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” said Stuart Gitlow. He directs the Annenberg Physician Training Program in Addictive Disease at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.

“There’s no benefit to marijuana,” said Gitlow. “It’s simply that people want the freedom to be stoned. That’s all it is. And there’s a great deal of risk.”

The two drugs have very different side effects, different long-term effects and different contributions to illness and death in the general population. “I would never try to compare and contrast them on something as absurd as ‘dangerousness,’ ” he said.

Many physicians disagree. “That’s a good start from the president but it’s still misinformed,” said Donald Abrams, chief of oncology at San Francisco General Hospital.

“In my 37 years as a physician, the number of patients I’ve admitted to the hospital with complications from marijuana use is zero. The number I’ve admitted due to alcohol use is profound,” he said.

Here’s a question: why not wait to see what happens in Colorado? Give it a few years, and see what impact legalized marijuana has on use, health, safety, and public resources. That would mean Obama won’t get a chance to make federal marijuana legalization his legacy, but ObamaCare will be that no matter what happens with pot anyway.