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An evolving presidential position on drugs

President Obama has not always welcomed questions about his views on drug use, but he gave a lengthy answer in a new interview.
President Barack Obama at the Justice Department in Washington, Friday, January 17, 2014.
President Barack Obama at the Justice Department in Washington, Friday, January 17, 2014.
President Obama has not always welcomed questions about his views on drug use, including marijuana. Dave Weigel noted that Obama has a habit of casually dismissing the topic, when he's not ignoring it altogether.
And so it was noteworthy that the New Yorker's David Remnick explored the issue during a lengthy interview with the president.

When I asked Obama about another area of shifting public opinion -- the legalization of marijuana -- he seemed even less eager to evolve with any dispatch and get in front of the issue. "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."

To his credit, Remnick pressed further, asking whether Obama believes marijuana might be less dangerous than alcohol.
The president apparently paused before diving in.

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." As is his habit, he nimbly argued the other side. "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?"

That's quite a nuanced answer, as is his wont, but with the administration's raids on dispensaries in the not-too-distant past, on balance, it would appear the president's policy views are evolving in this area, too.