According to a recent CNN poll, 87 percent of Americans think marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol. According to an interview with The New Yorker published yesterday, President Obama is one of them:
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.
In fact, Obama said, pot is less dangerous than alcohol "in terms of its impact on the individual consumer"—a view held by 73 percent of the respondents in that CNN poll. So Obama is not really going out on a limb by acknowledging that alcohol, measured by acute toxicity, accident risk, and the long-term effects of heavy consumption, is more hazardous than marijuana. On the face of it, he would be taking a bigger risk by endorsing the theory of evolution.
Yet news outlets around the world are treating Obama's comment as a big deal, because it contradicts official U.S. policy. Marijuana is on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, a category supposedly reserved for drugs with a high abuse potential that have no recognized medical value and cannot be used safely, even under a doctor's supervision. The Obama administration has stubbornly defended that classification, pretending it is scientifically sound.
Obama also seemed to contradict his own avowed opposition to decriminalizing marijuana, portraying legalization in Colorado and Washington as a solution to the racially disproportionate impact of pot prohibition:
"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."
To say that "it's important for [legalization] to go forward" is a bigger step than the signals of prosecutorial forbearance the administration has offered so far. Obama seems to be saying he wants these experiments to succeed.
In short, Obama is conceding that marijuana prohibition is unscientific and unjust. That is indeed a pretty big deal, assuming he does not find a way to wriggle out of it.