CONTACT Obama on marijuana: where's the full story? - Dr. Christian Thurstone

News coverage about marijuana legalization is fairly predictable. If there’s even a toehold to support driving this addictive substance into the country, count on splashy headlines. Today’s breathless summaries of President Barack Obama’s remarks on the subject to The New Yorker were no exception.

The chief narrative spinning out at this hour boils down to this one quote from the President: “I don’t think it (marijuana) is more dangerous than alcohol.”

Cue the sampling of headlines appearing this evening on a Google search:

Fox News: “Marijuana no more dangerous than alcohol”
USA Today: “Obama: Pot no more dangerous than alcohol”
CNN: Obama says marijuana ‘no more dangerous than alcohol’
Huffington Post: “Obama: Marijuana no more dangerous than alcohol’
Time’s Swampland: “Obama says marijuana can be less dangerous than alcohol”
The (U.K.) Telegraph: “Barack Obama says smoking marijuana less dangerous than alcohol”
NPR: Marijuana is ‘not more dangerous than alcohol’ (Check out how this article conveniently lops off the President’s most critical remarks about marijuana — and asks readers to click over to The New Yorker to see those.)

Then there’s this from Time: “Obama on Marijuana Legalization: ‘It’s important for it to go forward.'”

Now, take a look at the full passage to which these news organizations — and many others — were reacting. It appears at the bottom of this post. The President expresses a fair amount of skepticism about marijuana legalization — but you wouldn’t know that if you’re just skimming the headlines and stories rocketing around the world at this hour.

Why no headlines screaming that the President called the case for marijuana legalization “overstated?” Why aren’t news organizations trumpeting that he called marijuana use a “bad idea, a waste of time, not very healthy.” Where are the headlines about the President’s acknowledgement that marijuana legalization could lead to a slippery slope of negotiated doses of cocaine and finely calibrated doses of meth?

After all, the President has to know the nation’s largest marijuana-advocacy groups already are laying the groundwork for full-scale recreational drug legalization that includes psychedelics, meth and cocaine. This is no secret. They’ve been at it for decades. Just a few months ago, Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, led what amounted to a pep rally for recreational drug lovers. Among his rah rah sis boom bah:

“What is it we’re fighting for? Is it simply to legalize it all … some of us, yes, some of us, yes. Some of us believe deeply in our hearts that the best way to treat every drug is the way we treat alcohol and cigarettes today. And we may in fact be right. But what I also know is that to make that argument to the broader public, the public who has engaged and accepted that marijuana should be legally regulated, that we need to hold their hands and engage them into a different basis.”

Nadelmann followed up with this: “We’re not just a movement or people who like marijuana and relish our psychedelics … all the other drugs we enjoy, and we do so responsibly.”

Let’s ask President Obama what he thinks about all of that — and let’s demand the clear and straight answers we’re not getting from him.

While reporters eager to make the case that using weed is much like having a glass of wine or craft beer with a meal spin like tops, far more astute observers see very clearly what’s going on here: the President is playing both sides of a fence. Even some staunch legalization advocates bemoaned his waffling remarks, calling his position on marijuana “incoherent.” Again, judging from today’s giddy and incredibly myopic news coverage, you’d think he was crystalline.

Similarly, smart and responsible journalists will stop the cheerleading for weed — and the stenography — and doggedly question the President’s easy-breezy comparisons of marijuana and alcohol. He’s got opinions, but does current, reputable science support them? Not really, especially if we’re talking child health. Today’s marijuana is at least 10 times more potent than the strains the President recalls using when he was a teenager and young adult. The President — and everyone else basing their opinions on their experiences in the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s — must also stop to consider highly concentrated and increasingly popular forms of marijuana called “hash oil.” Doses of that oil often exceed 80 percent THC. That’s a far cry from the weed of Woodstock, which contained 1-3 percent THC, and the marijuana of around 8 percent THC the President used in the 1980s. This is obvious, and it’s worth mentioning.

Also worth mentioning? Kids take their cues from adults — especially adults they admire, like President Obama. So, when he says he doesn’t think marijuana is more dangerous than alcohol, is he stopping to consider what our nation’s health — specifically our nation’s child health — would look like if adolescent marijuana use rates caught up with youths’ use rates of alcohol? The rest of us should certainly stop to think about that — and let’s not wait for news organizations to get around to the reporting. Review the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future study for yourself. In 2013, 22.7 percent of high school seniors reported past-month use of marijuana compared to 39.2 percent of seniors who said they used alcohol in the previous 30 days.

Another elephant in this room? The President’s senior drug policy advisors at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and the National Institute on Drug Abuse are not on board with marijuana legalization — and it sure would be interesting to know what they make of the President’s comparison of marijuana and alcohol. Similarly, it would be great to know what they think of the President’s remark that it’s “important” for efforts to legalize recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington — which he also said would be “a challenge” — to move forward. When is it also going to be just as important for these states to pull the plugs on their grand experiments? How much death and destruction must be recorded to make those determinations? Whatever those limits are, it’s probably safe to say the President will be out of office when our country faces them.

At least President Obama makes clear he wants to reform laws that perpetuate racial and ethnic disparities and punish addiction more than treat it. That, too, is a case wildly overstated by marijuana supporters — and the President, having very easy access to public records and advisors who routinely present this information to communities across the country, probably knows this, too. But good for him. Many drug-prevention groups — such as Smart Approaches to Marijuana, or Project SAM — stand with him there. I strongly suspect the President knows marijuana legalization is not at all necessary to make those reforms — so it’s worth asking him what he’s waiting for. Why not champion reform now? We can certainly make changes without compromising the interests of public health and safety.

On the issue of marijuana legalization, President Obama needs to get serious because, whether he likes it or not, pot — especially as the drug harms American youth in greater numbers — is fast becoming a very big part of his legacy and grossly undermining his stated goals for reforming healthcare and education. He needs to lead — and that guidance for our nation must be rooted in much, much more than his opinions and personal experience.

Christine Tatum is a former staff writer for The Denver Post, Chicago Tribune, (Arlington Heights, Ill.) Daily Herald and (Greensboro, N.C.) News & Record. She was elected to serve as 2006-07 national president of the Society of Professional Journalists. Read more about her here.

Global reaction: The United States has staggering problems with alcohol and is failing to control its use and harm — which is all the more reason marijuana legalization is a bad idea for the U.S. and the world, writes Sven-Olov Carlsson, intentional president of IOGT International, in this open letter to President Obama. The IOGT is the world’s largest body of drug-prevention-and-policy advocates.

The President’s remarks on marijuana legalization as reported by The New Yorker:

“When I asked Obama about another area of shifting public opinion—the legalization of marijuana—he seemed even less eager to evolve with any dispatch and get in front of the issue. “As has been well documented, I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life. I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.”

“Is it less dangerous? I asked.

“Obama leaned back and let a moment go by. That’s one of his moves. When he is interviewed, particularly for print, he has the habit of slowing himself down, and the result is a spool of cautious lucidity. He speaks in paragraphs and with moments of revision. Sometimes he will stop in the middle of a sentence and say, ‘Scratch that,’ or, ‘I think the grammar was all screwed up in that sentence, so let me start again.’

“Less dangerous, he said, ‘in terms of its impact on the individual consumer. It’s not something I encourage, and I’ve told my daughters I think it’s a bad idea, a waste of time, not very healthy.’ What clearly does trouble him is the radically disproportionate arrests and incarcerations for marijuana among minorities. ‘Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do,’ he said. ‘And 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.’ But, he said, ‘we should not be locking up kids or individual users for long stretches of jail time when some of the folks who are writing those laws have probably done the same thing.’ Accordingly, he said of the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington that ‘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.’

“As is his habit, he nimbly argued the other side. ‘Having said all that, those who argue that legalizing marijuana is a panacea and it solves all these social problems I think are probably overstating the case. There is a lot of hair on that policy. And the experiment that’s going to be taking place in Colorado and Washington is going to be, I think, a challenge.’ He noted the slippery-slope arguments that might arise. ‘I also think that, when it comes to harder drugs, the harm done to the user is profound and the social costs are profound. And 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? 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?’”

About Christine Tatum

Christine Tatum is a veteran journalist whose communications and market intel firm, Media Salad, Inc., helps companies and nonprofit organizations win business and stay ahead of their competitors. Her professional stops include the Chicago Tribune, The Denver Post, the (Arlington Heights, Ill.) Daily Herald and the (Greensboro, N.C.) News & Record. Her work also has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, and New York Times.

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