Obama Supports Marijuana Decriminalization


The Washington Times reports that Barack Obama, who told an audience of college students when he was running for the U.S. Senate in 2004 that he favored decriminalizing marijuana, still holds that position, although he opposes complete legalization. According to his campaign, Obama mistakenly raised his hand during a presidential debate last fall when the candidates were asked which of them opposed marijuana decriminalization:

When asked by The Times about decriminalizing marijuana, the Obama campaign reiterated the candidate's opposition to legalization. "Senator Obama does not believe in legalization of marijuana, but agrees with President Bush that long minimum sentences for first-time drug users may not be the best way to occupy jail space or heal people from their disease," Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor said.

The campaign went on to say that, as president, Mr. Obama "will review drug sentences to see where we can be smarter on crime and reduce the blind and counterproductive sentencing of non-violent offenders, and revisit instances where drug rehabilitation may be more appropriate." His campaign later stated that Mr. Obama "always" has supported decriminalizing marijuana.

Given what Obama seems to mean by decriminalization, this position is not exactly radical. About a dozen states are said to have decriminalized marijuana, which generally means that possession of small amounts for personal use does not result in arrest and can be punished by a modest fine at worst. Possession is still illegal in almost all of those states, the conspicuous exception being Alaska, where possession of a few ounces in one's home does not trigger any penalty at all. Possessing more than the limit (usually an ounce), growing marijuana, or selling it remain crimes even in so-called decrim states. Still, this news gives me one more reason for preferring Obama to Clinton, a position that until now was based more on my distaste for her than any attraction to him.

Addendum: This was the question that confused Obama at the presidential debate:

Sen. Dodd, you went on the Bill Maher show last month and said that you were for decriminalizing marijuana. Is there anyone here who disagrees with Sen. Dodd in decriminalizing marijuana?

As I noted last month, Christopher Dodd's position regarding marijuana, which has been applauded by drug policy reformers, may not be as bold as it was made out to be. He said states should be allowed to set their own policies regarding medical use, a point on which all the Democratic candidates (including Clinton) agreed, and he expressed opposition to "statutes that would incarcerate or severely penalize people for using marijuana." But no state, whether it has "decriminalized" marijuana or not, makes a practice of locking up pot smokers, and neither does the federal government, so Dodd's preferred policy in this area may be pretty close to the status quo. 

[Thanks to Cesar for the tip.]