President Obama smoked pot in high school. Why is he against legalizing marijuana?
A new biography details Barack Obama's use of marijuana in high school and college, not unusual for a young man at that time. As president, Obama has taken a tougher line on drug use, including marijuana for medical reasons.
âNo,â he reportedly said, grinning. âBesides, I was very young at the time.â
Or as former president George W. Bush said when deflecting questions about his drug use decades ago, âWhen I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible.â
âYouthful indiscretionâ is a phrase often heard among politicians in recent years â typically referring to extra-marital affairs (sometimes occurring when the adulterer was in his 40s).
When he wasnât being questioned (or impeached) about his alleged womanizing, former president Bill Clinton acknowledged having smoked marijuana âa time or twoâ when he was a Rhodes Scholar in England â although he was quick to point out that he âdidn't inhale and never tried it again.â
Now itâs Barack Obamaâs turn to come under scrutiny for drug use.
In his new biography âBarack Obama: The Story,â to be published next month but widely excerpted in the press, David Maraniss of the Washington Post details Obamaâs marijuana smoking when the future president was a high school student in Hawaii.
With a group of friends who called themselves âThe Choom Gangâ (mostly basketball buddies) the future president rode around in a VW van or hung out at a favorite island spot up Mount Tantalus on Oahu, smoking marijuana and sometime drinking beer.
"They parked single file on the grassy edge, turned up their stereos playing Aerosmith, Blue Ăyster Cult, and Stevie Wonder, lit up some 'sweet-sticky Hawaiian buds,' and washed it down with 'green bottled beer' (the Choom Gang preferred Heineken, Beck's, and St. Pauli Girl)," Mr. Maraniss writes. "No shouting, no violence, no fights; they even cleaned up their beer bottles. This was their haven, in the darkness high above the city and the pressures of Punahouâ â the private college-prep school Obama attended from fifth grade through graduation in 1979.
The news that Obama used drugs for a while years ago â which is not really news; he acknowledges the fact in his autobiography âDreams from My Fatherâ â probably doesnât shock or even surprise many Americans versed in todayâs arguments about the failings of the âdrug warâ and the legalization of marijuana, including for medicinal purposes.
âNew data âŚ show that marijuana use is becoming a more acceptable behavior among teens, and heavy marijuana use is now at disturbingly high levels,â the Partnership for a Drug-Free America reported this month.
âNearly half of teens (47 percent) have ever used marijuana â a 21 percent increase since 2008. Additionally, two out of every five teens (39 percent) have tried marijuana in the past year, up from 31 percent in 2008,â according to the report. âPast-month use has increased 42 percent from 19 percent in 2008 to 27 percent in 2011. Heavy monthly use (20 or more times) is up 80 percent from 5 percent to 9 percent in 2011.â
And of course the Woodstock era in which the parents of todayâs teens grew up â the 1960s and 70s â launched a new public attitude about marijuana. âIf you can remember the 60s, you werenât really there,â goes the old joke, variously attributed to comedian Robin Williams or singer Grace Slick of The Jefferson Airplane. Who of a certain age can forget "White Rabbit?"
But back to Obama, who falls between the two generations. Whatâs his attitude as an adult toward marijuana?
Speaking at Northwestern University in Chicago in 2004 he said, âIn terms of legalization ofÂ drugs, I think, the battle, the war onÂ drugsÂ has been an utter failure and I think we need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuanaÂ laws.â
âBut Iâm not somebody who believes in legalization of marijuana,â he said. âWhat I do believe is that we need to rethink how we are operating in theÂ drugÂ wars, and I think that currently, we are not doing a goodÂ job.â
As president (and perhaps as the father of 13- and 10-year olds), heâs taken a tougher line.
The administrationâs National Drug Control Strategy, issued last year, states: âMarijuana and other illicit drugs are addictive and unsafe especially for use by young people. The science, though still evolving in terms of long-term consequences, is clear: marijuana use is harmful. Independent from the so called âgateway effectâ â marijuana on its own is associated with addiction, respiratory and mental illness, poor motor performance, and cognitive impairment, among other negative effects.â
On medical marijuana, the strategy states:
âDespite successful political campaigns to legalize âmedicalâ marijuana in 15 states and the District of Columbia, the cannabis (marijuana) plant itself is not medicine. While there may be medical value in some of the individual components of the cannabis plant, the fact remains that smoking marijuana is an inefficient and harmful method for delivering the constituent elements that have or may have medicinal valueâŚ. To date, the [Food and Drug Administration] has not found smoked marijuana to be either safe or effective medicine for any condition.â
Obamaâs âdrug czar,â Gil Kerlikowske (Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy), points out that most adult males arrested on misdemeanors and felonies test positive for an illegal drug, including marijuana, at the time of their arrest â ranging from 64 percent in Atlanta to 81 percent in Sacramento.
Mr. Kerlikowske (the former police chief of Seattle) advocates a âthird wayâ between legalization and strict criminalization â a focus on treatment and prevention.
Itâs the kind of thing the teen-aged Barack Obama probably didnât think about when he was hanging out with âThe Choom Gang.â