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Did Obama just come out for legalizing marijuana?

Obama said no to legalization before. But his views appear to be evolving.

President Barack Obama has been clear time and time again that he doesn’t believe marijuana legalization is a “panacea.” And in 2012, he said that he “wouldn’t go that far” when asked about legalizing marijuana.

But in speaking to Jann Wenner at Rolling Stone, Obama seemed a lot warmer to legalization than he has been in the past: “I do believe that treating this as a public-health issue, the same way we do with cigarettes or alcohol, is the much smarter way to deal with it.”

Alcohol and cigarettes are, of course, legal. So Obama’s remarks sure seem to suggest that he’s now quite friendly to legalization.

But he was quick to add: “Typically how these classifications are changed are not done by presidential edict but are done either legislatively or through the DEA. As you might imagine, the DEA, whose job it is historically to enforce drug laws, is not always going to be on the cutting edge about these issues.”

Asked whether he is now “on the cutting edge” of this issue, Obama wavered. “Look, I am now very much in lame-duck status,” he said. “And I will have the opportunity as a private citizen to describe where I think we need to go.” He added:

But in light of these referenda passing, including in California, I've already said, and as I think I mentioned on Bill Maher's show, where he asked me about the same issue, that it is untenable over the long term for the Justice Department or the DEA to be enforcing a patchwork of laws, where something that's legal in one state could get you a 20-year prison sentence in another. So this is a debate that is now ripe, much in the same way that we ended up making progress on same-sex marriage.

A White House spokesperson declined to elaborate on Obama’s comments.

The comparison to same-sex marriage, which is now fully legal in the US, is telling. Over the years, Obama evolved on same-sex marriage from opposition in 2008 to supporting it by 2012. His evolution followed national opinion, with just 40 percent of Americans favoring allowing same-sex marriages in 2008 and 50 percent saying the same in early 2012, according to Gallup. And as support rose, Obama dropped hints here and there about his views — including his repeated statements that he was “evolving” on the issue. (To many, this was just code — a sign that Obama was waiting until the public was on his side.)

Similarly, public support for marijuana legalization has steadily risen, going from 44 percent in 2009 to 60 percent in 2016, according to Gallup. And zero states allowed marijuana for recreational purposes when Obama took office, while eight states and Washington, DC, do today.

All along the way, Obama has dropped hints on his possibly evolving views on this issue as well. He suggested that marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol in an interview with David Remnick at the New Yorker published in 2014. And he said that pot should be treated as a public health issue, not a criminal justice issue, in a 2015 interview with a Kansas City news station.

So it sure looks like Obama is changing his view on marijuana. Unfortunately for legal pot advocates, this seems to be happening when it’s too late for him to do anything about it.

Tom Angell, head of the pro-legalization Marijuana Majority, called Obama out on this: “While President Obama’s comments are correct, and we certainly appreciate how he gave room for states to set their own policies during his administration, it would have been very helpful if he had taken more concrete positive action on this issue before it was almost time to vacate the Oval Office.” Angell went on to point out that Obama still has time to commute federal prisoners serving time for nonviolent drug offenses — “to walk the walk in addition to talking the talk.”

Still, whatever Obama does, his potential evolution shows how far marijuana legalization has come, much like same-sex marriage did during his time in office.