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Weed Grows On The White House — And Many Americans, Too


President Obama has reignited the debate over the nation's marijuana laws. In an interview with The New Yorker, the president said that the thinks smoking pot is less dangerous for the individual consumer than drinking alcohol. He quickly added that he doesn't encourage the use of marijuana, but he said it's important that experiments with legalizing pot in Colorado and Washington state go forward.

Such comments from a sitting president might be startling, but they come at a time when Americans' attitudes toward marijuana laws are rapidly changing. Here's NPR's Scott Horsley.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Pot has often been a punchline for Barack Obama. Here he is with Jay Leno during his first campaign for the White House.


HORSLEY: As the laughter died down, Obama insisted he wasn't trying to make light of the issue. He'd already written frankly about his own youthful drug use and he called it a mistake.


HORSLEY: The president adopts a similar tone in his recent New Yorker interview, calling pot smoking a vice and a bad idea. But he also says he personally doesn't think it's more dangerous than alcohol, which, after all, is legal. That's in contrast to the White House website, which highlights the hazards of heavy marijuana use, including memory problems and reduced IQ.

The administration's drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, underscored those risks in a 2010 interview with NPR.


HORSLEY: But Americans' attitudes are rapidly shifting from the Just Say No era. Over the last year, multiple surveys have found majorities who say recreational marijuana should be legalized. And in 2012, voters in Colorado and Washington state moved to do just that. Some have likened this turnaround to the rapid change in attitudes towards same-sex marriage. But analyst William Galston of the Brookings Institution disagrees. He says the growing willingness to legalize marijuana doesn't necessarily signal a growing acceptance of weed. On the contrary, he says, polls show Americans remain deeply ambivalent.

WILLIAM GALSTON: They don't think that smoking marijuana is a good thing, necessarily, but they are convinced that the social costs of enforcing our current marijuana laws are out of all proportion to the good that those laws are doing or ever did.

HORSLEY: Many conservatives who don't like marijuana still think states should be allowed to write their own laws on the subject and they're skeptical the government can wage an effective crackdown. Many liberals, on the other hand, including the president, are bothered by the heavy toll that drug laws take on poor blacks and Latinos.

Vanita Gupta of the ACLU says African-Americans are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for pot possessions as whites are, even though they use the drug at similar rates.

VANITA GUPTA: Those findings just really highlighted the degree to which there are two kind of pot users in the country. We don't have police on college campuses the way that we do in certain poor black and brown communities.

HORSLEY: Obama told the New Yorker, we should not be locking up kids for smoking pot when some of the folks who are writing those laws have probably done the same thing. A White House spokesman says the president still opposes legalizing marijuana, but analyst Galston suspects Obama's views are as nuanced as the public's.

GALSTON: And it just so happens that the president of the United States is where a lot of other Americans and a lot of other parents are.

HORSLEY: Obama told the New Yorker social change rarely happens in a straight line, adding those who are most successful typically have to zigzag like a sailor, taking into account winds and currents. The smoky haze over Colorado and, before long, Washington state, suggest the winds governing marijuana use are shifting.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
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