Obama Says Legalizing Marijuana Would Be 'Progress,' but Why the Rush?

The president thinks repealing pot prohibition should be young Americans' lowest priority.


Vice News

During a Vice News interview that was posted yesterday, Shane Smith apologetically asks President Obama about marijuana legalization, which he says was the most popular topic among readers who suggested questions. "For young people, I'm sorry, but if you legalize marijuana, it would be the biggest part of your legacy," Smith says. Unlike other occasions when he was confronted by this subject, Obama does not laugh, but he does take the opportunity to lecture "young people" about their priorities. "I understand this is important to you," he says, "but, you know, you should be thinking about climate change, the economy, jobs, war and peace. Maybe, way at the bottom, you should be thinking about marijuana."

As Conor Friedersdorf suggests at The Atlantic, there are sound reasons why people might disagree with the ordering Obama suggests, starting with the fact that marijuana prohibition is an obvious injustice with an obvious solution. Speaking as someone who is too old to qualify for Obama's age-based condescension, I think the chance that he and I will agree about marijuana legalization is much greater than the chance that we we will ever see eye to eye on the right approach to climate change, the government's proper role in promoting employment, or the justification for going to war.

Does Obama agree that marijuana should be legalized? As in his 2014 interview with The New Yorker's David Remnick, he is officially waiting to see how things go in states such as Colorado and Washington. To his credit, he has refrained from interfering with those experiments, and he allows that "if enough states end up decriminalizing, Congress may then reschedule marijuana" (by which I assume he means deschedule marijuana, because otherwise recreational use would remain illegal). He even describes that step—repealing the federal ban—as "progress."

Obama obviously is in no hurry, despite the fact that the government arrests 700,000 or so marijuana offenders each year and currently imprisons some 40,000 for daring to grow a plant or distribute its produce. "I always say to folks who support legalization or decriminalization that it's not a panacea," he says. In case you were wondering, legalization also is not a "silver bullet." But is it better than the alternative? Although Obama seems to think so, he is not willing to say the words.

The president is more comfortable criticizing "disproportionate prison sentences." He says "our criminal justice system" is "skewed towards cracking down on nonviolent drug offenders," which has "a terrible effect on many communities, particularly communities of color, rendering a lot of folks unemployable, because they [have] felony records." While "substance abuse…is a problem," Obama says, "locking someone up for 20 years is probably not the best strategy." He adds that he is "encouraged" that  "you're starting to see not just liberal Democrats but also some very conservative Republicans recognize this doesn't make sense, including the libertarian wing of the Republican Party." But here, too, Obama does not seem to think there is an urgent need for action, as reflected in his lackadaisical approach to clemency.