In an interview with Vice News last 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.
When Obama was running for the U.S. Senate in 2004, he participated in a forum at Northwestern University where someone asked him about his position on drug legalization. "I think the…war on drugs has been an utter failure," he said, "and I think we need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws, but I'm not somebody who believes in legalization of marijuana."
While decriminalize is an ambiguous term, in the context of American drug policy it has generally meant replacing criminal penalties for simple possession with civil fines. That seems to be what Obama had in mind when he said we should "decriminalize our marijuana laws" without fully legalizing the drug—a position that was not very controversial at the time. According to a 2002 CNN poll, three-quarters of Americans agreed that people caught with small amounts of marijuana should not go to jail.
Yet as a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, Obama seemed to worry that his position on marijuana decriminalization might be misconstrued. During an October 2007 debate at Drexel University in Philadelphia, moderator Tim Russert noted that Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) had recently voiced support for decriminalizing marijuana. "Is there anyone here," Russert asked the candidates, "who disagrees with Sen. Dodd in decriminalizing marijuana?" Obama put his left hand halfway up, as if he were at that very moment weighing the pros and cons of opposing decriminalization.
A few months later, The Washington Times asked the Obama campaign to explain his apparent disagreement with Dodd:
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.
At first the Obama campaign obfuscated the issue, referring to "long minimum sentences for first-time drug users," a red herring with reference to cannabis consumers. At the time the only mandatory minimum for simple possession under federal law was a five-year sentence for crack cocaine. But Obama's spokesman also said the candidate continued to support marijuana decriminalization.
That lasted about a week. In February 2008, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) reported that "Senator Barack Obama's campaign backed away from statements made last week affirming the Senator's support for decriminalizing marijuana." NORML added that "a spokesman for Obama's campaign blamed confusion over the meaning of decriminalization for the inconsistencies."
It was not clear whether Obama was confused or merely worried that voters would be. Nor was it clear whether he had actually changed his stance and now thought that marijuana users should be arrested.
Obama was not eager to clarify his position after he was elected president. Instead he literally laughed at questions about marijuana legalization. At a March 2009 "town hall meeting" featuring questions submitted online, a grinning Obama made it clear that people who oppose pot prohibition should not be taken seriously:
There was one question that was voted on that ranked fairly high, and that was whether legalizing marijuana would improve the economy and job creation. And I don't know what this says about the online audience, but…this was a popular question. We want to make sure it's answered. The answer is no, I don't think that's a good strategy to grow our economy. All right.
Obama also treated the subject of drug legalization as a laughing matter at a January 2011 forum in which people posed questions via YouTube. He sobered up a bit after watching a video in which MacKenzie Allen of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition asked him about ending the war on drugs. "I think this is an entirely legitimate topic for debate," Obama said. "I am not in favor of legalization. I am a strong believer that we need to think more about drugs as a public health problem." Obama's concession that legalization was a legitimate (though hilarious) topic for debate sat rather uneasily with his drug czar's declaration that "legalization is not in the president's vocabulary."
Obama's marijuana-induced giggles were especially irritating in light of his youthful pot smoking, which could have forestalled his political career if he had been caught. As Andrew Sullivan put it in his book The Cannabis Closet, "How does a society treat something as a harmless, ubiquitous joke and then arrest hundreds of thousands of people a year for doing it?"
During a July 2011 Q&A session at the University of Maryland, Obama again advocated a "public health" approach to drug abuse but explicitly rejected a policy like the one adopted by Portugal, which eliminated criminal penalties for users in 2001. "Am I willing to pursue a decriminalization strategy as an approach?" he said. "No."
After he was safely re-elected, Obama began speaking more candidly about marijuana, most famously in a January 2014 interview with The New Yorker's David Remnick. Obama acknowledged that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol, casting doubt on the rationality of the distinctions drawn by our drug laws. He also noted the racially disproportionate impact of marijuana prohibition.
"Middle-class kids don't get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do," Obama told Remnick. "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." Regarding the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington (which the Justice Department already had said it would not challenge), Obama had this to say: "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."
In other words, just two and a half years after he had rejected decriminalization of marijuana use, Obama signaled an openness to full legalization. By that point polls were showing that most Americans favored legalization, which got more votes in Colorado than Obama did. And far from going out on a limb by saying marijuana is safer than alcohol, he was merely agreeing with an opinion held by a large majority of Americans.
Talking to CNN's Jake Tapper shortly after his interview with The New Yorker, Obama sounded ambivalent about legalization. He said "the incarceration model that we've taken, particularly around marijuana, does not seem to have produced the kinds of results that we've set." But he also worried that when "big corporations with a lot of resources and distribution and marketing arms are suddenly going out there peddling marijuana…the levels of abuse that may take place are going to be higher."
Despite his misgivings, Obama last week suggested that state-level legalization eventually will lead Congress to repeal the federal ban. "We may actually be able to make some progress on the decriminalization side," he said. "At a certain point, if enough states end up decriminalizing, Congress may then reschedule marijuana."
Presumably Obama meant Congress will deschedule marijuana (i.e., remove it from the list of "controlled substances"), since otherwise recreational use would remain illegal. But as his reference to decriminalization in this context reflects, Obama's use of drug-policy terminology is pretty sloppy, or maybe just slippery. A few years ago, he eschewed decriminalization, apparently because he worried that the word would scare people. Now he uses it as a reassuring synonym for full legalization. That suggests how far public opinion has moved and how careful Obama is not to get ahead of it.
The article originally appeared at Forbes.com.