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Obama Still Taking It Slow on Marijuana

Obama answers a question from a participant about decriminalizing marijuana during a town hall meeting with young leaders at the University of the West Indies in Kingston. (Mandel Ngan/Getty Images)

Just when President Barack Obama started to sound more and more like a supporter of legalizing marijuana, he’s hit the pause button. Obama has made positive comments about legalizing — or at least decriminalizing — marijuana in interviews with David Simon , VICE News and a YouTube star. But he made it clear during a visit to Jamaica, of all places, that people shouldn't expect big changes in federal law soon.  

"There are two states in the United States that have embarked on an experiment to decriminalize or legalize marijuana — Colorado and Washington State. And we will see how that experiment works its way through the process," Obama said.  

"Right now, that is not federal policy, and I do not foresee anytime soon Congress changing the law at a national basis. But I do think that if there are states that show that they are not suddenly a magnet for additional crime, that they have a strong enough public health infrastructure to push against the potential of increased addiction, then it's conceivable that that will spur on a national debate. But that is going to be some time off."  

Given Obama has less than two years left in office, that doesn’t sound like something he’s planning as his second term winds down, although he also has spoken repeatedly about supporting reduced jail time for nonviolent drug offenders, including during his rambling answer Thursday.  

Bills have popped up in Congress to both reduce sentences, reschedule the drug and effectively legalize medical marijuana. Congress last year passed a ban on raids of state-licensed medical marijuana facilities as part of the omnibus spending bill Obama signed into law.  

But Obama's marijuana policies have been all over the map — from the White House website's harsh condemnation of marijuana, including medical marijuana — to the laissez-faire approach the Justice Department is taking to legal weed in the states, to Obama's support for letting Washington, D.C., legalize the drug.  

Here’s Obama’s full answer, per the transcript:  

Q    My name is Miguel Williams, but you can call -- I am Steppa.  (Laughter.)  

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Steppa.  

Q    Yeah, man, that is quite sufficient.  My question has to do and surrounds U.S. policy as it regards the legalization, the decriminalization of marijuana.  

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  How did I anticipate this question?  (Laughter.)  

Q    Yeah, man.  

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  How did I guess this question?  

Q    Yes.  And, Mr. President, it really comes under (inaudible).  We face economic challenges with the IMF, et cetera.  And and we find realistically that the hemp industry, the marijuana industry provides a highly feasible alternative to rise above poverty.  So I am wanting to over stand and to understand how U.S. is envisioning and how you would you see Jamaica pushing forward on a decriminalization, legalization emphasis on the hemp industry.  (Applause.)  

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Okay.  Well.  (Laughter.)  Let me -- I do want to separate out what are serious issues in the United States and then how that relates to our foreign policy and our interactions with the region.  There is the issue of legalization of marijuana, and then there is the issue of decriminalizing or dealing with the incarceration and, in some cases, devastation of communities as a consequence of nonviolent drug offenses.  

I am a very strong believer that the path that we have taken in the United States in the so-called “War on Drugs” has been so heavy in emphasizing incarceration that it has been counterproductive.  You have young people who did not engage in violence who get very long penalties, get placed in prison, and then are rendered economically unemployable, are almost pushed into, then, the underground economy, learn crime more effectively in prison, families are devastated.  

So it’s been very unproductive.  And what we’re trying to do is to reform our criminal justice system.  And the good news is there has actually been some interest on the part of unlikely allies like the evangelical community or some otherwise very conservative Republicans, because it’s very expensive to incarcerate people, and a recognition that this may not be the best approach.  So that’s one issue.  

There’s then the second issue of legalizing marijuana, whether it’s medical marijuana or recreational use.  There are two states in the United States that have embarked on an experiment to decriminalize or legalize marijuana -- Colorado and Washington State.  And we will see how that experiment works its way through the process.  

Right now, that is not federal policy, and I do not foresee anytime soon Congress changing the law at a national basis.  But I do think that if there are states that show that they are not suddenly a magnet for additional crime, that they have a strong enough public health infrastructure to push against the potential of increased addiction, then it’s conceivable that that will spur on a national debate.  But that is going to be some time off.  

And then the third issue is what will U.S. international policy be.  And we had some discussion with the CARICOM countries about this.  I know on paper a lot of folks think, you know what, if we just legalize marijuana, then it’ll reduce the money flowing into the transnational drug trade, there are more revenues and jobs created.  

I have to tell you that it’s not a silver bullet, because, first of all, if you are legalizing marijuana, then how do you deal with other drugs, and where do you draw the line?  Second of all, as is true in the global economy generally, if you have a bunch of small medium-sized marijuana businesses scattered across the Caribbean and this is suddenly legal, if you think that big multi-national companies are not going to suddenly come in and market and try to control and profit from the trade -- that’s I think a very real scenario.  

And so I think we have to have a conversation about this, but our current policy continues to be that in the United States, we need to decrease demand.  We need to focus on a public health approach to decreasing demand.  We have to stop the flow of guns and cash into the Caribbean and Central America and Latin America.  (Applause.)  And at the same time, I think the Caribbean, Latin America have to -- Central America -- have to cooperate with us to try to shrink the power of the transnational drug organizations that are vicious and hugely destructive.  

And if we combine a public health perspective, a focus on not simply throwing every low-level person with possession into prison by trying to get them treatment, if we combine that with economic development and alternative opportunities for youth, then I think we can strike the right balance.  It may not comport with your -- completely with your vision for the future, but I think that we could certainly have a smarter approach to it than we currently do.  

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