A few months into his presidency, Barack Obama participated in a town hall with questions selected by an online audience. The topic that most concerned the people logging in: Marijuana. The president, who’s written about his teenage exploits with his high school’s “Choom Gang,” mostly laughed away the topic. “I don’t know what this says about the online audience,” he said. He did not think legalizing marijuana would boost the economy. In subsequent town halls, the marijuana and drug war questions piled up but the president didn’t answer them. Online audience — you know what that’s like.
So it says something that David Remnick, the New Yorker editor in chief and presidential biographer, threw a marijuana question into his latest Obama interview. It comes in the middle of a long, good profile of the president, and it starts with Remnick asking how dangerous marijuana is. “I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol,” says the president. Remnick follows up: Is it any less dangerous?
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.”