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Obama Backs Marijuana Decriminalization, With Caveats (Updated) (Video)

Obama sees "progress" in states decriminalizing marijuana — and says Congress could then reschedule the drug. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Updated 6:35 p.m. | President Barack Obama appeared to come closer than ever to endorsing legal marijuana in an interview posted Monday by VICE News. Obama, asked about the popularity of legalizing marijuana among young people, appeared initially unenthusiastic.  

“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.”  

But he said, as he did in a YouTube interview earlier this year, that incarcerating nonviolent drug offenders has devastated communities, particularly those “of color.”  

“It costs a huge amount of money to states and a lot of states are starting to figure that out,” he said.  

He said “some very conservative Republicans realize this doesn’t make sense ... they see the money and how costly it is to incarcerate.  

“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 then reschedule marijuana,” Obama said.  

He added caveats though.  

He said he wanted to draw a difference between decriminalizing the drug and encouraging its use, and said drug abuse is a problem.  

“Legalization, or decriminalization, is not a panacea. Do you feel the same way about meth? Do we feel the same way about coke? How about crack? How about heroin? There is a legitimate, I think, concern about the overall effects this has on society and particularly vulnerable parts of society. Substance abuse, generally, legal and illegal substances, is a problem."  

But, he continued, "Locking up someone for 20 years is probably not the best strategy, and that’s something we have to rethink as a society as a whole.”  

The comments are the clearest Obama has made on the subject to date, and come after his attorney general nominee, Loretta Lynch, firmly rejected the idea of legalizing marijuana in her confirmation hearing. At the hearing, she said she disagreed with the president's comment in an earlier interview that marijuana isn't more dangerous than alcohol. One of the Department of Justice's acting deputies, Vanita Gupta, is a prominent proponent of legalizing marijuana .  

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., meanwhile, has pointed the finger to Congress when it comes to rescheduling the drug, although advocates want Obama to use executive action to do so.  

A trio of senators, including Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., introduced a bill last week that would ease marijuana laws and reschedule the drug. Obama, of course, wrote about his own drug use in "Dreams From My Father."  

But his administration has long opposed legalizing the drug, including for medical use.  

The White House website rips proponents of legalizing marijuana :

Confusing messages being presented by popular culture, media, proponents of “medical” marijuana, and political campaigns to legalize all marijuana use perpetuate the false notion that marijuana is harmless. This significantly diminishes efforts to keep our young people drug free and hampers the struggle of those recovering from addiction.
The White House website also questions whether decriminalizing marijuana will reduce costs as Obama suggested in the Vice interview, pointing to the many arrests related to alcohol consumption :
It is therefore fair to suggest that decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana might not reduce the drug’s burden to our justice and public health systems with respect to arrests, but might increase these costs by making the drug more readily available, leading to increase use, and ultimately to more arrests for violations of laws controlling its manufacture, sale, and use.
The full Vice News interview is here:  

www.youtube.com/watch?v=2a01Rg2g2Z8  

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