Marijuana legalization is all over the media today, even more so than usual. Some of this is thanks to the NFL, because, yes, the Super Bowl will be played between two teams with home games attended by people legally stoned.
Little of that matters now, thanks to
Richard Sherman the president. In an interview conducted a few months ago, published this weekend in The New Yorker, Barack Obama sent the entire federal government screeching forward on drug policy when he said that marijuana isn't more dangerous than alcohol -- and "not very different" from cigarettes.
Skeptics and pessimists will rightly point out that this talk is just that -- talk -- and won't do a thing to change Department of Justice policy or to remove marijuana from the government's list of most-dangerous drugs.
But this is Obama -- a man not known for empty talk or for making verbal slips to reporters. Something is afoot in Washington on drug policy.
First, the source material. In a lengthy piece, New Yorker editor David Remnick gets Obama to opine on an awful lot of things -- what he'll do with the last bit of his presidency, for one.
Here's the passage wherein he mentions weed in its entirety. It's not long, and goes a way to provide necessary context.
When I asked Obama about another area of shifting public opinion--the legalization of marijuana--he seemed even less eager to evolve with any dispatch and get in front of the issue. "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. I don't think it is more dangerous than alcohol."
Is it less dangerous? I asked.
Obama leaned back and let a moment go by. That's one of his moves. When he is interviewed, particularly for print, he has the habit of slowing himself down, and the result is a spool of cautious lucidity. He speaks in paragraphs and with moments of revision. Sometimes he will stop in the middle of a sentence and say, "Scratch that," or, "I think the grammar was all screwed up in that sentence, so let me start again."
Less dangerous, he said, "in terms of its impact on the individual consumer. It's not something I encourage, and I've told my daughters I think it's a bad idea, a waste of time, not very healthy." What clearly does trouble him is the radically disproportionate arrests and incarcerations for marijuana among minorities. "Middle-class kids don't get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do," he said. "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." But, he said, "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." Accordingly, he said of the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington that "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."
As is his habit, he nimbly argued the other side. "Having said all that, those who argue that legalizing marijuana is a panacea and it solves all these social problems I think are probably overstating the case. There is a lot of hair on that policy. And the experiment that's going to be taking place in Colorado and Washington is going to be, I think, a challenge." He noted the slippery-slope arguments that might arise. "I also think that, when it comes to harder drugs, the harm done to the user is profound and the social costs are profound. And you do start getting into some difficult line-drawing issues. If marijuana is fully legalized and at some point folks say, Well, we can come up with a negotiated dose of cocaine that we can show is not any more harmful than vodka, are we open to that? If somebody says, We've got a finely calibrated dose of meth, it isn't going to kill you or rot your teeth, are we O.K. with that?"
Here you see the few nuggets "important to go forward," "less dangerous" leaped upon by the media as well as legalization backers in their full context. Obama is clearly not calling for anything. Nor is he making any revolutionary statements. But to have a sitting president, the most powerful man in the free world, essentially say that federal policy is wrong is something.
It's clear Obama was not entirely thrilled to go on record about marijuana, something on which he's been a bit erratic. It was Obama, after all, who said on the campaign trail that as president he'd respect state law on cannabis, and then watched as his Justice Department took a bite out of state-legal weed in multiple Western states.
But he did. And this is a guy that intellectualizes everything and doesn't say anything -- especially to a reporter -- publicly without much caution. The times are quickly changing. Last summer's Sanjay Gupta CNN "mea culpa" on cannabis's legitimacy as a medicine normalized and mainstreamed the issue in a way that the flood of scientific studies on which his conclusions are based never could.
"This shows that the most powerful person in the world sees a political benefit in staking out a positive position on marijuana legalization," observed Aaron Houston, a policy adviser with the company, Ghost Group, that runs weedmaps.com. "That won't be lost on the cleverer politicians across both major parties."
And perhaps thanks to the positive polling, the Justice Department has largely stood aside as Colorado went ahead and opened up its pot stores, and looks to do the same as Washington readies its commercial weed program. This is a big change from 2010, when Attorney General Eric Holder's October surprise helped destroy legalization's chances here in California.
So what's next? It is possible that major drug reform could be Obama's last big move in office, now that the Affordable Care Act, warts and all, is enshrined in law and in peoples' healthcare plans.
Weed reform might not even have to wait until after the mid-term elections this year -- in fact, it could be a big part of the midterms.
"They keep sending up the trial balloons and for the most part are getting positive feedback," said East Bay-based marijuana activist Mickey Martin. "If we look at how they dealt with gay marriage I would say change is here. They re working out logistics IMO."
Drug reform In our lifetimes? How about within the lifetime of our current mobile phone plan?