As 2014 marked the beginning of new marijuana decriminalization laws in Colorado and Washington state, a few comments from President Barack Obama became national news. Much of the coverage, however, bore little resemblance to what Obama had actually said.
Obama’s marijuana commentary came in a lengthy New Yorker profile (1/27/14) by David Remnick. When asked to weigh in on legalization, Obama said, “I view [marijuana use] as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked ...through a big chunk of my adult life.” He added that he told his daughters that “I think it’s a bad idea, a waste of time, not very healthy,” while acknowledging that “I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.”
He threw in a straw man about legalization proponents: “Those who argue that legalizing marijuana is a panacea and it solves all these social problems I think are probably overstating the case.” And Obama made a slippery slope argument, musing on the question of where society draws the line:
You do start getting into some difficult line-drawing issues. If marijuana is fully legalized and at some point folks say, “Well, we can come up with a negotiated dose of cocaine that we can show is not any more harmful than vodka,” are we open to that?
One might say that Obama managed to take every position on the issue. But much of the conversation sparked by Obama’s words focused on the idea that Obama said something especially controversial about how pot might not be so bad for you.
Given that Obama was in no way endorsing marijuana use, it might be hard to imagine there was much controversy at all. Alcohol-related deaths are most certainly a more pressing public health concern than marijuana, with excessive drinking blamed for 88,000 US deaths per year by the Centers for Disease Control. In contrast, the British Medical Journal (9/18/03) reported that while “the use of cannabis is not harmless, the current knowledge base does not support the assertion that it has any notable adverse public health impact in relation to mortality.”
But the media were off to the races. CNN host Brooke Baldwin declared the alcohol/pot comparison was “the quote that has really made news this week.” Former drug czar John Walters appeared on CNN’s The Lead (1/22/14) to say:
I think the science over the last 50 years has shown us this is more dangerous, not less dangerous. He knows some of this. If you read his autobiography, you can see when he does talk about using marijuana, he basically says what we have known. Marijuana makes you stupid.
(Obama, of course, ended up at Harvard Law School; if he hadn’t smoked pot, maybe he could have gotten into Yale?)
USA Today (1/20/14) told the story under the headline “Dangers of Pot vs. Booze Debated: Experts Speak Out After Obama Remarks.” The first expert, Stuart Gitlow of the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, was blunt: “There’s no benefit to marijuana.... It’s simply that people want the freedom to be stoned.”
On Fox News Channel’s Special Report (1/20/14), reporter Ed Henry said that Obama had “suggested rolling a marijuana joint was not much different from cigarettes,” which was apparently ironic since “the president’s administration... based on a 1970 law, still classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, with high potential for abuse.” Henry repeated that on the O’Reilly Factor (1/24/14), saying that Obama “may run into more trouble” over the pot/alcohol comparison, since “his own drug czar” still calls marijuana “a very dangerous drug. And that’s contradictory.”
MSNBC host Chris Matthews (1/20/14) said that Obama’s message “departs from what we’ve heard in administrations in the past.” Matthews acknowledged that he’s normally a big Obama backer, but
the fact is I don’t think he is right on this one, because I think people have addictive personalities, and some people react to freedom differently than others. And we better be ready for it, because it’s coming now.
Though it was a bit muddled, Matthews’ point seemed to be that marijuana posed a similar risk to alcohol—which does not contradict what Obama said. “We all deal with our anecdotal experiences in life,” he explained, adding that he has been “around guys who drank too much and after they drank too much, we go look for dope, around midnight. So don’t tell me booze wasn’t a gateway to dope or to marijuana.”
Even before the interview was published, some in elite media were expressing their discomfort with the news from Colorado. “For a little while in my teenage years, my friends and I smoked marijuana,” wrote New York Times columnist David Brooks (1/3/14) in a widely derided piece. Brooks recalled that “one member of our clique became a full-on stoner,” while the rest of his group “graduated to more satisfying pleasures.” Too much pot “seemed likely to cumulatively fragment a person’s deep center,” Brooks counseled, adding that legalization efforts were “nurturing a moral ecology in which it is a bit harder to be the sort of person most of us want to be.”
On the same day (1/2/14), Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus—a liberal by corporate media standards—wrote a similar confessional:
Marijuana legalization may be the same-sex marriage of 2014—a trend that reveals itself in the course of the year as obvious and inexorable. At the risk of exposing myself as the fuddy-duddy I seem to have become, I hope not.
Marcus admitted that she had “done [her] share of inhaling,” but given what she sees as the potential health risks, she concluded that “society will not be better off with another legal mind-altering substance.”
And Meet the Press host David Gregory (1/5/14) offered this:
I think about it as a parent with young kids.... There is a little bit of sentimentality, like, “Well, you know, if I tried pot, it’s not going to be so terrible.” I mean, there is medical issues with that. I don’t know all the science behind it, but then it’s a lot more potent now.
Watching pundits grasp for a reason to criticize Obama’s comments, ironically enough, only underscored one of his points: American society devotes significant resources to a punitive approach to one substance, while fully legalizing and normalizing other far more dangerous and addictive substances.
Indeed, stripped of the moralizing about what to tell children, Obama’s most coherent statement about marijuana was about the disproportionate prosecution of users:
Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do.... 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.
The racial dimension of the government’s drug policies are clear: People of color are less likely to use illegal drugs than whites, but far more likely to be arrested and prosecuted (Huffington Post, 9/17/13).
It’s not that this part of Obama’s comments went unmentioned. But a more rational media system might have focused less on comparing marijuana to alcohol and more on the havoc wreaked by the war on drugs—and what the racist dimensions of that war might say about our “moral ecology.”