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As proof that the growing consensus against the War on Drugs and the criminalization of marijuana use has reached the upper echelon's of influence, President Barack Obama said in an interview published Sunday that current drug enforcement wrongly punishes "a select few."
“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,” Obama said, speaking with writer David Remnick, who quoted the president for a New Yorker profile.
“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," Obama continued. "I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.”
Obama went on to criticize enforcement of drug policy which he says unfairly targets young minorities, a view long-held by social justice advocates who say that the War on Drugs has enabled systematic racism within the criminal justice system.
“Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do,” Obama 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.”
When discussing experiments with legalization, such as legislation recently passed in Colorado and Washington, Obama said of the new laws: “it’s important for [the law] 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.”
Both Colorado and Washington have passed legislation legalizing recreational marijuana, creating a market in which local authorities will oversee growing, distribution and marketing. Colorado's law went into effect January 1 and Washington's marijuana shops are expected to open later this year.
However, despite the Obama administration pledge that it would not interfere in states that allowed commercial marijuana sales, pot remains illegal under federal law.
Further, as historian and blogger Juan Cole points out, the Department of Justice under the Obama administration has launched "punitive campaigns against legitimate marijuana businesses operating within state law," averaging 36 medical marijuana prosecutions a year since 2009.
As Alison Holcomb, the American Civil Liberties Union attorney who authored the Washington state ballot measure, told the LA Times, the growing shift in attitude's towards legalization does not necessarily reflect "changes in attitudes about marijuana specifically. Rather, it's a change in attitudes about whether it's OK to support marijuana law reform."
"In other words," The Times continues, "Americans don't necessarily like pot more than they used to. The percentage of those who have actually tried it has stayed in the 30% range for three decades. Rather, Americans are simply fed up with criminal penalties they say are neither cost-effective nor just."
Last Wednesday, organizers in Florida announced they had gathered over 1 million signatures in favor of putting a medical marijuana measure before voters, and on Jan. 8 residents in Alaska delivered about 46,000 signatures—50% more than required—asking officials to put legalization to a state vote.