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President Obama wants to treat marijuana like tobacco but not legalize it. Wait, what?

President Barack Obama speaks to a reporter.
President Barack Obama speaks to a reporter.

President Barack Obama on Thursday said he wants to treat marijuana like tobacco, which is legal. But, in a bit of a contradiction, he also suggested he opposes marijuana legalization.

In an interview with Kansas City news station KMBC, Obama said states could change their marijuana laws to discourage pot use in the same way tobacco use is discouraged:

As a general matter, I think that we have to separate out legalization — you know, there's a lot of concern about drug abuse of any sort by our children and the general population — versus the heavy criminalization of non-violent drug offenses. And I think that a lot of states are taking a look to see, do we have proportionality in terms of how we are penalizing the recreational user? We still want to discourage that. But we've been able to discourage tobacco, we've been able to discourage a lot of other bad things that people do, through a public health approach as opposed to an incarceration approach.

The president drew a key distinction in his comments, which echo previous statements he made to CNN. He appears to support marijuana decriminalization, which would remove criminal penalties, particularly prison time, attached to the drug. But he doesn't seem to support marijuana legalization, which would remove even misdemeanor penalties, including small fines, and potentially allow retail outlets to sell pot.

There's an obvious contradiction in Obama's comments: he vouches for treating marijuana like tobacco, but tobacco isn't just decriminalized — it's legal and sold in stores, and excluded from the federal government's scheduling system, which evaluates drugs for medical value first and abuse potential second.

Despite its legality and availability, tobacco use plummeted in the past few decades, thanks to education campaigns, mandatory warning labels, public and workplace smoking bans, and higher taxes on tobacco products. Marijuana legalization advocates point to the trend as evidence that even a highly addictive substance can be legal and contained.


Most likely, the president is only endorsing the education campaigns, public smoking bans, and other public health measures that helped reduce tobacco use. But the exclusion misses how warning labels and higher taxes on tobacco managed to push down consumption over the decades — and neither of those approaches are possible in a black market in which regulations can't touch the product at all.

Obama's support of marijuana decriminalization but not legalization also helps show that marijuana policy reform can be handled in various ways — a point drug policy experts have tried to make in the past few years, as several states have moved to fully legalize pot.

"One of the things we've been working very hard in marijuana legalization discussions is to get people to recognize there are at least 10 different fundamental architectures for legalizing marijuana," Jon Caulkins, a drug policy expert at Carnegie Mellon University, recently said.

In a January report on marijuana legalization for the Vermont legislature, Caulkins and other experts outlined 12 alternatives to the current model of prohibition. Among the options: continued prohibition with decreased penalties, legalization with commercial sales, letting adults grow marijuana, allow distribution only within small private clubs, and have the state government operate the supply chain and sell pot.

The four states that voted to legalize marijuana chose to fully legalize and allow commercial sales, and Washington, DC, only legalized possession, growing, and gifting. But there's plenty of room in between commercialization and criminal prohibition, as Obama and policy experts have pointed out.

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