January 20

In an interview with the New Yorker released on Sunday, President Obama made perhaps the strongest endorsement by any sitting president on relaxed marijuana laws. Pushed by interviewer David Remnick, Obama acknowledged that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol in its effect on consumers. He also noted the obvious racial and economic disparities in enforcement of marijuana laws. “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.”

A fully budded marijuana plant ready for trimming is seen at the Botanacare marijuana store ahead of their grand opening on New Year's day in Northglenn, Colorado, in this December 31, 2013 file photo. The District of Columbia will take a step closer toward decriminalizing marijuana on January 15, 2014 with a move that will make smoking a joint in the U.S. capital a violation comparable to a parking ticket. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/Files (UNITED STATES - Tags: DRUGS SOCIETY)
A fully budded marijuana plant. (Reuters)

In fact, the president backhandedly came close to endorsing outright legalization of the drug for recreational purposes, by offering a modified endorsement of new laws in Colorado and Washington that do exactly that:

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.”

Obama circled back around and noted the new laws in both states could be “a challenge” because of the potential for legalization of other, harder types of drugs. He also noted he has advised his daughters not to smoke marijuana. So it wasn’t an outright endorsement.

But the moment was still significant in several ways. In context of the United States’ long-running and highly problematic war on drugs, it is quite notable to have a president come out and say that marijuana isn’t nearly as harmful as it is often made out to be and to back serious changes in the legal regime governing the drug.

Obama is correct about the racial disparities at work here: The American Civil Liberties Union issued a report last year finding that African Americans are four times as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana, despite similar rates of use.

The White House’s record is somewhat checkered on this issue. On the one hand, early in Obama’s time in office, his administration stepped up federal crackdowns on marijuana producers sanctioned by state law, a move that was highly criticized by reformers. However, Attorney General Eric Holder recently took steps to relax federal prosecution of marijuana offenses and said the Justice Department won’t challenge new state laws on marijuana. Obama’s comments may reflect a real evolution in his approach to drug policy, and one that may have long-lasting effects.

But there is, of course, also a political angle here. Whether he meant to or not, Obama was positioning himself and his party on the correct side of an issue that many Democrats feel could reap serious political rewards in the coming months and years.

For example, in Florida, strategists on both sides of the gubernatorial race there believe a statewide referendum to legalize some marijuana use could tilt the contest to Democrats. Republicans have filed a legal challenge to keep it off the ballot, because they openly admit it may bring young people and minorities — traditional Democratic voters — to the polls in unusually high numbers. “It’s an issue that the Democrats can use to pump up the youth vote,” Alex Patton, a Republican political consultant told Bloomberg Businessweek. “The politics of it are dangerous for the GOP.”

And Florida isn’t the only place marijuana will be on the ballot this year. At least four other states will put the issue before voters, and people outside those areas are no doubt following the evolving debate closely.

Polls have shown recent spikes in support for legalized marijuana. Gallup found 58 percent of Americans favor legalization, and other surveys show majorities also share Obama’s view that the drug is not physically or mentally harmful. I have no idea if Obama’s remarks were a calculated move, but his party’s prospects this fall seem likely to improve as a result.