Obama: If Enough States Decriminalize Marijuana, Congress May Change Federal Law

03/16/2015 07:51 pm ET | Updated Mar 17, 2015

President Barack Obama said if enough states reform their marijuana laws, Congress may change federal law that continues to make the drug illegal.

Obama, during an interview with Vice Media co-founder Shane Smith released in full on Monday, said he's encouraged that liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans seem to agree that current U.S. marijuana laws don't make sense.

"We may be able to make some progress on the decriminalization side," Obama said. "At a certain point, if enough states end up decriminalizing, then Congress may then reschedule marijuana."

Last week, Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) introduced a bill that would reclassify marijuana from a Schedule I drug, which has high potential for abuse and no medical value, to a Schedule II drug, which has lower potential danger and recognized medical benefits. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use. Twenty-three states have legalized marijuana for medical purposes. Four states, as well as D.C., have legalized recreational marijuana.

"I'd separate out the issue of criminalization of marijuana from encouraging its use," Obama said. "I think there's no doubt that our criminal justice system, generally, is so heavily skewed towards cracking down on non-violent drug offenders that it has not just had a terrible effect on many communities -- particularly communities of color -- rendering a lot of folks unemployable because they got felony records, disproportionate prison sentences. It costs a huge amount of money to states and a lot of states are figuring that out.

"But what I'm encouraged by is you're starting to see not just liberal Democrats, but also some very conservative Republicans recognize this doesn't make sense -- including the libertarian wing of the Republican Party."

Obama cautioned that legalization or decriminalization of marijuana, or any other substance, isn't a panacea.

"I think there is a legitimate concern about the overall effects this has on society, particularly vulnerable parts of our society," Obama said. "Substance abuse generally, legal and illegal substances, is a problem. Locking somebody up for 20 years is probably not the best strategy, and that is something we have to rethink as a society as a whole."

Smith told Obama marijuana was the most popular topic that Vice readers wanted the president to address in the interview, parts of which were released last week. Obama said he understands the interest in the drug, but said the issue of marijuana "shouldn't be young people's biggest priority."

Young people should care about "climate change, the economy, jobs, war and peace," Obama said. Maybe at the bottom of that list, the president said, "you should be thinking about marijuana."

According to a recent study from the American Civil Liberties Union, blacks were nearly four times as likely than whites to be arrested on charges of marijuana possession in 2010, even though usage was about the same for both groups. In Washington, D.C., Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois, blacks were 7.5 to 8.5 times more likely than whites to be arrested for possessing pot.

The United States is home to just 5 percent of the world’s population, but a full 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. The harsh and lengthy sentences for nonviolent drug crimes have helped bolster that figure. In 1980, there were roughly 40,000 drug offenders in U.S. prisons, according to the Sentencing Project, a prison reform group. By 2011, the number of drug offenders serving prison sentences had ballooned to more than 500,000 -- most low-level operators with no prior criminal records.

While relaxed state marijuana laws have begun to affect incarceration rates, an average one person is arrested for marijuana possession every minute in the U.S., according to FBI statistics.

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