This week President Obama referred to the repeal of the federal ban on marijuana as "progress on decriminalization," a concept that he has both embraced and rejected over the years. In my latest Forbes column, I argue that Obama's shifting pot positions reflect changes in public opinion:
In an interview with Vice News this week, President Obama suggested that removing marijuana from the list of federally prohibited substances would represent "progress." At the same time, he made it clear he's in no hurry to see that happen. "Young people," he said, "I understand this is important to you. 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."
This sort of condescension is by now a familiar feature of Obama's responses to questions about marijuana legalization. It glosses over the reality of pot prohibition, which entails arresting 700,000 or so people every year in the United States, or one every 45 seconds. Although those people generally do not spend much time behind bars, they still experience the indignity, cost, and inconvenience of being treated like criminals, and they may face life-altering consequences. That is surely true of the 40,000 people in prison for growing or distributing marijuana, who could be forgiven for wanting to change this unjust policy before we manage to lick global warming.
Although addressing the pointless pain caused by pot prohibition may not be high on Obama's list of priorities, he has intermittently recognized it as a serious issue. A review of Obama's statements about marijuana during the last decade or so suggests that, as with gay marriage, he has often felt a political need to conceal his true beliefs, becoming more comfortable about voicing them as public opinion has shifted in his direction. Expecting Obama to lead on this issue is plainly unrealistic, but he seems willing to follow.