Obama Says Legal Pot Shouldn't Be Top Youth Priority, Advocate Responds

President Barack Obama during his VICE interview. The video and more below.
President Barack Obama during his VICE interview. The video and more below.
VICE News via YouTube

In a new interview with VICE News, President Barack Obama said plenty of things that cheered marijuana-legalization advocates.

For instance, he decried the criminalization of nonviolent drug offenders and made comments that seemed to support the rescheduling of cannabis — one of the key provisions in a new bill pushed by likely Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul.

But Obama also seemed uncomfortable with the idea that legalizing pot is the most important issue for many young people.

This last part of his response troubles at least one major figure on the national marijuana scene.

VICE founder Shane Smith, who interviewed Obama, broached the subject of cannabis by saying marijuana legalization was the most-suggested interview topic by visitors to the VICE website — and that if Obama got behind it, the change would represent arguably his most important legacy as far as young people are concerned.

Obama balked at that.

"First of all, it shouldn't be young people's biggest priority," he said. "Sometimes on the White House website and petitions, we get the same.

"Let's put it in perspective," he continued. "Young people, I understand this is important to you. But you should be thinking about climate change, the economy, jobs, war and peace. Maybe way at the bottom, you should be thinking about marijuana."

Nonetheless, Obama then went on to address the issue in a detailed manner.

"I separate out the issue of the criminalization of marijuana from encouraging its use," he told Smith. "I think there's no doubt that our criminal-justice system in general is so heavily skewed toward cracking down on nonviolent drug offenders that it has not just had a terrible effect on many communities, particularly communities of color, rendering a lot of folks unemployable because they've got felony records.... It costs a huge amount of amount of money to the states — and a lot of states are starting to figure that out.

President Obama and VICE founder Shane Smith.
President Obama and VICE founder Shane Smith.
VICE News via YouTube

"But what I'm encouraged by is we'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. So we may actually be able to make some progress on the decriminalization side.

"At a certain point, if enough states end up decriminalizing, then Congress may reschedule marijuana."

This comment may be the furthest Obama's gone on the subject, and after making it, he instinctively drew back to some degree.

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"I always say to folks, legalization or decriminalization is not a panacea. Do you feel the same about meth? Do you feel the same way about coke? How about crack? How about heroin? There is a legitimate concern about the overall effects this has on society, and particularly vulnerable parts of society.... Substance abuse generally, legal and illegal, is a problem. But locking someone up for twenty years is probably not the best sentence."

How does the Marijuana Majority's Tom Angell feel about Obama's remarks? Mixed, as is clear in this statement he shared with Westword.

“The president is right that as voters force more and more changes to state marijuana laws, national policymakers will have no choice but to catch up," he writes. "But he should think again about how important this issue is.

"On average, there's a marijuana possession arrest in the U.S. about every minute," Angell maintains. "Billions of dollars are wasted on enforcing prohibition laws that don’t stop anyone from using marijuana but do ruin people’s lives with damaging criminal records. And the black market is controlled by drug cartels and gangs that use violence to protect their profits.

"This is a serious issue, and the president needs to treat it as such," he concludes. "In fact, his administration can reschedule marijuana without any further Congressional action needed. He should do that.”

From Angell's perspective, the ball is in Obama's court. Here's the complete VICE interview. The section about marijuana takes place just shy of the fifteen-minute mark.

Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.

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