President Barack Obama says that the new batch of legal states could force the American government to finally address marijuana legalization. The outgoing commander-in-chief made that remark during an interview with Bill Maher that aired last night on HBO.
"[Marijuana is] on the ballot now in 9 states," Maher said during the chat. "Including California for recreational -- and Arizona. And medical in places like North Dakota. Isn't it time the federal government caught up to progressive states like Arizona and North Dakota?"
Obama chuckled before offering a response that has become common among tepid drug reformers: the government needs to treat the use of illegal substances as a public health concern, not a criminal justice issue. "I don't think that legalization is a panacea," he concluded. "But I do think that we're going to have to have a more serious conversation about how we are treating marijuana and our drug laws generally."
And the five states that will vote on recreational marijuana this Tuesday -- Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada -- could force the federal government to have that conversation.
"If, in fact, [legalization] passed in all these states, you now have about a fifth of the country that's operating under one set of laws and four-fifths under another. The Justice Department, DEA, FBI -- for them to try to straddle and try to figure out how they're supposed to enforce laws in some places and not in others. [How] they're going to guard against transporting these drugs across state lines, but you've got the entire Pacific corridor where this is legal. That is not going to be tenable."
Of course, the situation is already untenable in terms of medical marijuana. In total, 26 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medicinal cannabis use. But Chuck Rosenberg -- the head of the DEA -- still insists that "marijuana has a high potential for abuse, has no accepted medical use in the United States, and lacks an acceptable level of safety for use even under medical supervision." Rosenberg made those comments last summer while justifying the DEA's decision to keep cannabis listed alongside drugs like heroin in the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).
That decision seems even more absurd after Obama told Maher that opioids like heroin and oxycodone pose much greater risks to Americans than marijuana. "It is indisputable that right now the biggest drug crisis we have is with opioids -- many of which are legal and are ravaging entire communities across the country," he said.
Check out his full remarks on the issue in the clip below, which includes Maher putting Obama on the hot seat. "We all make jokes about it. But it's not funny to the people who get arrested, which is over half a million, I think, last year. You and I both could have had our lives ruined not really by smoking it. But by being arrested for it."
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