A new interview with Barack Obama was published Sunday in the New Yorker, featuring the President describing weed smoking as being on par with other “bad habits”, even going to far as to say that he doesn’t consider it as bad as alcohol, something pro-marijuana advocates have been saying basically forever.
“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 recalled to New Yorker reporter David Remnick. “I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.”
I can only assume screaming over the anguished sobs of Nancy Reagan, Obama continued to speak plainly and reasonably in defiance of anti-weed propaganda, stating that, in his opinion, pot is actually less dangerous than booze “in terms of its impact on the individual consumer.”
In case you missed it, marijuana was recently legalized in Colorado and Washington state. In the interview, Obama cited these instances as “important” moves in the direction of a stronger, more fair justice system overall. And this is where he got right to the point of what really makes the decriminalization of weed such an important social issue. Because the crucial truth of the legal weed debate is not about whether smoking weed is “right” or “wrong” or even if the government has the right to decide that for you (although, those are very valid points, and do matter) – it’s about how drug laws are used to perpetuate wildly disproportionate arrests and incarceration rates among poor and non-white Americans.
This inequality – poor people and minorities being hugely disadvantaged in a system that further represses the repressed – is not new information to any American who has even a vague understanding of social politics and the US prison industry. What is shocking is hearing the President openly validate this brutal reality, and support taking active steps to help infuse a bit more balance into a severely biased justice system.
“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.”
Think Progress summed up the implications of this dynamic really well:
Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union issued a report that found African Americans are four times as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana, even though both groups use the drug at similar rates. (In Washington, D.C. specifically, African Americans are eight times more likely to be arrested.) This is not an abstraction. Under federal law and in most states, marijuana offenses go on a person’s criminal record and carry jail time. That can make it harder if not impossible to find a job or to vote and often results in the revocation of professional licenses, the loss of education, financial aid or public benefits, and can event prevent a person from adopting a child. More people are arrested for marijuana-related offenses than for violent crime, meaning police resources are sucked away from addressing the latter.
The disproportionate effect of marijuana arrests and prosecutions on minorities is also part and parcel of the disproportionate damage the criminal justice system as a whole inflicts on these communities. Imprisoning massive portions of the country’s black and latino populations breaks up families, frays communities, destroys economic opportunity, and undermines those communities’ faith in the democratic process — leading to falling levels of political and voter participation.
Obama’s statements about our need to evolve drug laws in this country are in keeping with his and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s ongoing mission to reform how these crimes are defined and punished; Last year, Holder announced an end to mandatory minimum sentences. The idea is – if you can believe it – that the way that the U.S. has been prosecuting drug offenses for the past several decades has effectively done very little to diminish drug use and drug-associated crime, but it has done a lot to fuck over poor and non-white people.
So far, 17 states have passed legislation to decriminalize marijuana, as have many cities individually.