In an interview with David Remnick published in The New Yorker on Sunday, President Obama equated smoking marijuana with “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.”
When Remnick asked whether it was “less dangerous” than cigarettes or alcohol, the president demurred. It is 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.”
Obama then acknowledged the structural inequalities surrounding drug laws in the United States. “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.”
He went on to attack the hypocrisy of long sentences handed out to users by laws written by politicians who have likely committed the same crimes. “[W]e 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 said.
Of the challenges to federal drug policy issued by the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, the president said that “there is a lot of hair on that policy.” By which he meant, it seems, that there is some validity to the slippery slope argument used by opponents of legalization: “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?”
Obama seemed particularly concerned with the plight of African-Americans and Latinos throughout the wide-ranging interview. “You have an economy,” he said at one point, “that is ruthlessly squeezing workers and imposing efficiencies that make our flat-screen TVs really cheap but also puts enormous downward pressure on wages and salaries. That’s making it more and more difficult not only for African-Americans or Latinos to get a foothold into the middle class but for everybody—large majorities of people—to get a foothold in the middle class or to feel secure there.”