Politics
President Barack Obama speaks at the White House in Washington Jan. 16, 2014. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque) President Barack Obama speaks at the White House in Washington Jan. 16, 2014. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)  

HOPE AND CHANGE: Obama uses racial politics to justify marijuana legalization

Photo of Neil Munro
Neil Munro
White House Correspondent

President Barack Obama says he backs limited marijuana legalization because it could help reduce the number of African American and Hispanic men who are jailed for drug offenses.

“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,” Obama told the New Yorker’s top editor during a series of interviews published on Friday.

The legalization efforts in Washington state and Colorado should be accepted and measured, Obama said.

“It’s important for it 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,” he said.

In 2012 state ballots, Colorado and Washington voters made marijuana consumption legal.

Obama’s claim of a racial disparity likely stems from a 2013 assertion by the ACLU, in a report titled “The War on Marijuana in Black and White: Billions of Dollars Wasted onRacially Biased Arrests.”

Enforcement of anti-marijuana laws has “had a staggeringly disproportionate impact on African Americans,” said the report.

The report did not try to examine whether enforcement of other drug laws has resulted in disproportionate arrests of whites, blacks, Asians or Hispanics for other illegal drugs, such as amphetamine, cocaine or heroin, or for legal intoxicants, such as alcohol.

But the report shows that some of most disproportionate arrest rates occur in jurisdictions run by Democrats or African Americans, such as Washington D.C., New York, Maryland and Illinois, Baltimore and Prince George’s county in Maryland, as well as the cities of Memphis and Philadelphia.

The high-ranking for jurisdictions where African Americans are politically influential or dominant suggests that the data merely shows that different behavior by different groups may yield different consequences, not that the nation’s laws are unfair or racist.

One possible explanation for the disparity denounced by the ACLU and Obama is that African Americans use or sell marijuana more than other groups in those jurisdictions.

In prior statements, Obama has acknowledged that African Americans commit more crimes per person than do whites. “African American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system…. [as] victims and perpetrators of violence,” he said in a July White House press conference.

A November 2011 report by the Justice Department said that young African American men comprise only one percent of the population, but commit 27 percent of the nation’s murders. (RELATED: Obama blames racism, guns for Zimmerman acquittal in emotional, rambling surprise speech)

But the ACLU report claimed the disparate arrests shows “staggering racial bias,” and urged marijuana legalization.

“The right road ahead for this country is clearly marked: marijuana possession arrests must end… States should legalize marijuana, by licensing and regulating marijuana production, distribution, and possession for persons 21 or older,” said the report, which was authored by Ezekiel Edwards, director of the ACLU’s criminal law reform project. Edwards has degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Vassar College.

In his interview, Obama softened the racial angle by wrapping it in economic rhetoric. “Middle class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do,” he said.

He also hedged his endorsement of legal marijuana by endorsing some curbs that aren’t related to race.

“Those who argue that legalizing marijuana is a panacea and it solves all these social problems [caused by anti-drug enforcement] I think are probably overstating the case… and the experiment that’s going to be taking place in Colorado and Washington is going to be, I think, a challenge,” he told the New Yorker.

“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? If somebody says, ‘We’ve got a finely calibrated dose of meth, it isn’t going to kill you or rot your teeth,’ are we O.K. with that?”

Obama’s zig-zag response, however, doesn’t necessarily indicate ambivalence on his support of marijuana legalization.

Instead, it may reflect his usual strategy of zig-zagging towards his goal of imposing more control of Americans’ economic and civic life by university-credentialed progressives.

“The nature of not only politics but, I think, social change of any sort, is that it doesn’t move in a straight line, and that those who are most successful typically are tacking like a sailor toward a particular direction but have to take into account winds and currents and occasionally the lack of any wind, so that you’re just sitting there for a while, and sometimes you’re being blown all over the place,” he told The New Yorker.

For exampled, Obama announced in May 2012 that he wanted to redefine marriage so that its focus shifted from aiding parenting towards aiding adults, both homosexual and heterosexual.

Long before the May announcement, however, he had endorsed changing marriage rules in 1996. In subsequent elections, he hedged and equivocated, and implicitly slammed traditional marriage by saying he was “evolving” away from it, as if it was a primitive social institution that would naturally lead to something superior.

When asked by The New Yorker if he had zig-zagged his way towards his real goal of changing marriage rules, Obama admitted that is “fair to say that I may have come to that realization slightly before I actually made the announcement.”

On marijuana, Obama hedged when asked if it is dangerous, and responded with a partial criticism.

“I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes… [and] I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.”

“What clearly does trouble him is the radically disproportionate arrests and incarcerations for marijuana among minorities,” concluded the New Yorker’s editor.

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