Barack Obama's Marijuana Legacy

As the head of the government, every U.S. president will leave a mark on the nation's marijuana laws -- whether by tinkering with the nation's drug policy or simply upholding the status quo. But sometimes leaders like Barack Obama -- who turns 55 today -- help reshape the discourse around the country's cannabis laws by offering open and thoughtful remarks on the issue.

We could track Obama's top marijuana moments by talking about his administration's opposition to legalization, or his refusal to alter America's drug laws without support from Congress. But instead, we've focused on the contributions he's made to cannabis culture by reflecting on the drug war and cannabis prohibition.

1. Commander-in-Leaf

"When I was a kid, I inhaled frequently," then Illinois Senator Obama said during a 2006 interview. "That was the point."

With those words on the record, he was set to become the first American president to openly admit to using marijuana. And his riff on former President Bill Clinton's infamous "I didn't inhale" quote is fitting, in retrospect, since Obama would have to outdo former First Lady Hillary Clinton in order to win the 2008 presidential nomination. 

At the time, honesty was a risky gamble. Even though Obama hasn't been as progressive on pot as activists would like, he nevertheless made history by being the first commander-in-chief to speak directly and honestly about using cannabis.  

2. The Choom Gang

Obama mainly smoked cannabis while growing up in Hawaii with a group of friends that called themselves "the choom gang" -- "choom" being slang for marijuana. When reflecting on those years in 2014, Obama chided his younger self. But he didn't condemn marijuana like Jeb Bush and other politicians who uphold the War on Drugs even though they smoked pot in the past. And unlike Bush, who supports the dubious gateway drug theory, Obama said that toking was about the same as smoking cigarettes or drinking.

"I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes I smoked as young person up through a big chunk of my adult life. I don't think it is more dangerous than alcohol."

Cannabis consumers will quickly point out that cannabis is arguably safer than tobacco as well as alcohol. But Obama's statement is nevertheless significant given the status quo. Right now, the DEA classifies marijuana as a drug that's as dangerous as heroin and has no medical benefits. Obama is very progressive in comparison.

3. Sobering Advice for Jamaica

While visiting Jamaica in April 2015, Obama held a townhall meeting to discuss international issues. To everyone's surprise, someone got up and asked what the president thought about the birthplace of reggae legalizing marijuana. After sharing some chuckles with the crowd, Barack offered some sobering thoughts on how the cannabis industry could renew colonialism in the caribbean.

"If you have a bunch of small [or] medium-sized marijuana businesses scattered across the Caribbean," Obama warned, "[then] big multinational companies are... going to suddenly come in and market and try to control and profit from the trade. That's -- I think -- a very real scenario. And so I think we have to have a conversation about this."

4. Pot Panacea

President Obama offered some tough criticisms of the War on Drugs when he sat down in 2014 with CNN's Jake Tapper. "The incarceration model that we've taken -- particularly around marijuana -- does not seem to have produced the kind of results that we've set," he said.

But while advocating a public-health approach to dealing with drug use, Barack also challenged activists to question their view of pot as a panacea for social ills. He warned that legalization had the potential to lead to unprecedented marijuana abuse, not because of the drug's effects but because of capitalism.

"Those who think legalization is a panacea, I think they have to ask themselves some tough questions too. Because if we start having a situation where big corporations with a lot of resources and distribution and marketing arms are suddenly going out there peddling marijuana, then the levels of abuse that may take place are going to be higher."

5. Prioritizing the issue

President Obama has no problem talking about marijuana. But he doesn't like it overshadowing other issues. When VICE founder Shane Smith told him that cannabis was the most popular issue raised by readers, Barack openly expressed disappointment in America's youth for not treating other issues more seriously.

"It shouldn't be young people's biggest priority," he said during the 2015 interview. "So let's put it in perspective, young people. I understand this is important to you. But you should be thinking about climate change, the economy, jobs, war and peace. Maybe way at the bottom you should be thinking about marijuana."

Of course, you could say that legalization has benefits to the climate, the economy and the job market. So maybe Obama should bump it up on his list of priorities.

6. Consistency

It's normal for public figures to change their minds on marijuana now that the plant has become more socially acceptable, but Barack's stance has remained surprisingly consistent. Back in 2004, then Illinois State Senator Obama preached decriminalization for the same reasons he questions the drug war today.

"I think that the War on Drugs has been an utter failure. And I think that we need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws. But I'm not somebody who believes in legalization of marijuana, " said Obama.

Banner Image:President Barack Obama holds an Affordable Care Act conference call in the Oval Office Private Dining Room in November of 2014. (Pete Souza / Official Whitehouse Photo)


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