Obama's belief that pot's less risky than alcohol (sort of) is refreshing, says Mason Tvert

In the latest issue of the New Yorker, President Barack Obama says marijuana isn't more dangerous than alcohol and is actually less so in at least one significant way.

Obama, who admits to smoking pot during his younger years but has spoken critically about the substance, hasn't turned into a cheerleader for weed.

But Marijuana Policy Project spokesman Mason Tvert is still upbeat about the President's statements and hopes they signal more progressive cannabis policies on the part of his administration.

In the New Yorker piece, penned by David Remnick, Obama initially addresses the subject of marijuana in a manner reminiscent of his comments in an interview with Barbara Walters from December 2012.

"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," he tells Remnick.

But then he breaks new ground to some degree by adding, "I don't think it is more dangerous than alcohol."

When asked if he believes marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol, Obama grows cautious, arguing that it's not as risky "in terms of its impact on the individual consumer." Then, after stressing that pot smoking is "not something I encourage, and I've told my daughters I think it's a bad idea, a waste of time, not very healthy," he takes on the subjects of enforcement and race.

President Obama during a 2011 appearance in Colorado.
President Obama during a 2011 appearance in Colorado.

"Middle-class kids don't get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do," he maintains. "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." As such, he goes on, "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."

He also references Colorado and Washington, the two states that have legalized recreational pot sales. In his view, their efforts should be allowed to move ahead "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."

Tvert's response?

"It's refreshing to finally hear our nation's top governmental official acknowledge that marijuana is less harmful for the consumer than alcohol," he says. "Although it's somewhat odd that it has to come as a surprise when our President simply acknowledges a fact -- an obvious fact. But the evidence is clear, and finally, it appears our federal government is shifting toward a more evidence-based approach. And hopefully this translates into action."

One obvious step Obama and company could take pertains to allowing marijuana entrepreneurs in Colorado and Washington to use banking services, as can other legal businesses. Based on reports he's received, Tvert believes this fix is already underway. As such, he feels the first priority should be "Congress taking action when it comes to changing specific marijuana laws."

Continue for more of Mason Tvert's reaction to President Barack Obama's recent marijuana-related statements.   He concedes that "there's some debate about whether the President would have the ability to call for the rescheduling of marijuana," currently treated as a Schedule 1 narcotic, "by executive order." In the meantime, however, "he could simply acknowledge the DEA administrative law judge's ruling in 1988 that marijuana is safe for adults and should be rescheduled accordingly."

Mason Tvert during a 2013 appearance outside the Denver Press Club.
Mason Tvert during a 2013 appearance outside the Denver Press Club.
Photo by Sam Levin

The ruling in question, penned by Francis L. Young, is included below in its entirety, but here are some excerpts:

"Based upon the facts established in this record and set out above, one must reasonably conclude that there is accepted safety for use of marijuana under medical supervision." "To conclude otherwise, on this record, would be unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious...."

"The cannabis plant considered as a whole has a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, there is no lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision and it may lawfully be transferred from Schedule I to Schedule II. The judge recommends that the Administrator transfer cannabis."

Does Tvert see Obama's comments to Remnick as the sort of statement that will have far-reaching effect, or is it just another small step forward?

"A bit of both," he replies. "This is significant, because for eighty years, our federal government has been exaggerating the harms of marijuana in order to keep it illegal. And now, our top federal official is highlighting the fact that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol.

"I don't know that it will be considered a major turning point, but at least in the short term, it's a noteworthy event."

Likewise, he believes such statements will make it more difficult for opponents of marijuana reform to turn back the clock -- like, for instance, radio personality Dan Caplis, who recently told us he plans to lead a movement calling for the repeal of Amendment 64, which allows adults 21 and over to use and consume small amounts of marijuana.

"For most Coloradans," Tvert says, "the facts are already in."

With that in mind, he argues that "if the President agrees marijuana is less harmful than alcohol, we certainly hope he'll agree that adults of age to consume alcohol should not be punished for making the safer choice to use marijuana."

Here's the aforementioned 1988 ruling by DEA Administrative Judge Francis L. Young.

Marijuana Rescheduling Petition Ruling 1988

Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.

More from our Marijuana archive circa December 2012: "Video: Barack Obama says targeting recreational marijuana users not a priority, but...."

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