In an interview that will air for the first time this weekend as part of CNN's latest installment of its medical marijuana documentary series "WEED 3," President Barack Obama signals support for medical marijuana and for rolling back the federal government's war on drugs.
CNN's chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, a vocal supporter of the legalization of medical marijuana, asks Obama in the documentary if he supports the goals of a historic Senate bill introduced in March that seeks to make several major changes in federal law, including drastically reducing the federal government's ability to crack down on state-legal medical marijuana programs, encouraging more research into the plant and reclassifying marijuana as a less dangerous drug.
"You know, I think I'd have to take a look at the details," Obama began in response, "but I'm on record as saying that not only do I think carefully prescribed medical use of marijuana may in fact be appropriate and we should follow the science as opposed to ideology on this issue, but I'm also on record as saying that the more we treat some of these issues related to drug abuse from a public health model and not just from an incarceration model, the better off we're going to be."
Obama went on to use current tobacco policies as an example of a model the United States could employ to move away from its punitive approach to drug users.
"One of the great victories of this country has been our ability to reduce incidences of smoking, increase the incidences of seat belt use," Obama said. "You know, we save tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of lives every single year. We didn't throw anybody in jail; we just made sure that they were well-informed and if somebody has an addiction, we made sure that we made it easy for them to get help. And I think we need to re-emphasize that approach, because we don't want to encourage our kids to engage in drug use, but there are going to be more effective ways than, too often, the approach we're taking today."
The U.S. has the largest prison population in the world -- housing 25 percent of the globe's prisoners, but only 5 percent of the total world population. That figure has been boosted by often harsh and lengthy sentences for nonviolent drug possession or distribution crimes. According to research from the Sentencing Project, a prison sentencing reform group, there were around 40,000 drug offenders in U.S. prisons in 1980, but by 2011, that number dramatically increased to more than 500,000.
Obama's comments to Gupta echo sentiments he voiced in February backing the removal of criminal penalties for nonviolent drug offenders.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a co-sponsor of the Senate bill Gupta was referencing, also sat down with Gupta in CNN's new documentary and slammed the federal government's marijuana laws as hypocritical.
"We now have had three presidents that have admitted to smoking marijuana," Booker said. "People that are in public office all throughout the Senate have said, 'Hey, I've smoked marijuana recreationally.' How much of a hypocrite do you have to be to say that I broke American laws using pot as a recreational thing and that I'm not going to support this idea that as a medicine for severely sick people, that they shouldn't be able to access this drug?”
Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, told The Huffington Post that U.S. tobacco policies could be effectively applied to marijuana nationally.
"I’d agree with President Obama that we should look at how we've reduced cigarette smoking rates to historic lows, and apply those same tools to marijuana," Riffle said. "That would require moving marijuana out of the Controlled Substances Act’s list of schedules altogether, just like tobacco, and instead using taxes, honest education and sensible regulations. That’s what’s working in Colorado now, and what every major poll shows the majority of Americans are ready to do."
Under the Controlled Substances Act, or CSA, the U.S. has five categories for drugs and drug ingredients. Schedule I is reserved for what the Drug Enforcement Administration considers to be the "most dangerous" drugs without currently accepted medical value. Marijuana has been classified as Schedule I for decades, alongside substances like heroin and LSD.
Riffle says the medical marijuana protections bill introduced in the Senate last month is a "great" bill, but also explained that he's critical of one provision that only moves marijuana to Schedule II -- the same schedule as cocaine and methamphetamine.
"That’s obviously not the appropriate category, and moving it there wouldn’t address bigger obstacles to research, like the DEA and NIDA’s control over the supply of marijuana available to researchers which the bill does separately," Rifle said.
To date, 23 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical purposes, and 13 others have legalized the use of limited marijuana extracts for certain conditions. Multiple studies have shown a range of potential medical benefits, suggesting marijuana combats aggressive cancer, slows the spread of HIV and stunts the progression of Alzheimer's disease.
CNN's "WEED 3: The Marijuana Revolution" premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. EST.