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Obama's Marijuana Comments Are Great, But How About Some Action?

Obama has the worst reputation of any U.S. president in history when it comes to prisoner clemency.
 
 
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President Obama's comments this week on marijuana marked a nudge in the right direction for U.S. drug policy. Now, the President should back up his words with his actions.

For those who missed it, he told David Remnick of the New Yorker:

“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.”

When asked, he reluctantly agreed that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol, “...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.”

The president appears to be plodding toward the realization of facts that drug policy reformers have been shouting to the government for years: the 40-year-old war on drugs is racist, misinformed and damaging to our society. So, what’s he going to do about it?  If marijuana is safer than alcohol, why is it still listed as a “most dangerous drug” by the federal government? Where is the executive clemency for nonviolent marijuana prisoners? 

Obama’s most vehement reasoning on the topic of pot was, in Remnick’s words, “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,” Obama told Remnick. “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.”

He continued, “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.”

These are important statements. Still, Obama has taken few of the steps available to him to back up his words. 

He has the worst reputation of any U.S. president in history when it comes to prisoner clemency, which includes pardons and commutation of sentences. To date, he’s only issued  39 pardons, while more than 100,000 people remain behind bars in the U.S. due to drug war policies. Nonviolent drug offenders account for more than a quarter of all inmates in the U.S., up from less than 10 percent in 1980. 

In 2011, drug offenders accounted for 48 percent of the federal prisoner population and 16 percent of the state prisoner population. Half of all of those people are incarcerated for marijuana-related crimes, according to the  Sentencing Project. More than 3,200 of these prisoners are serving life sentences for nonviolent offenses. 

These nonviolent prisoners remain incarcerated today because of involvement with a substance even the President now admits is safer than alcohol.

Last year, 43 percent of all  FBI "arrests for drug abuse violation" were of people in possession of marijuana, and 6 percent of all drug-abuse violation arrests were for the "sale/manufacturing" of marijuana. So marijuana arrests account for almost half of all arrests in the country. Now, many of these offenses are legal in two U.S. states, and Obama has said he thinks those legalization policies are necessary for the betterment of society. 

He told the New Yorker, “It’s important for [the new laws in Washington and Colorado] 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.”