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When the President Doesn't Take the High Road

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This week, pundits and policymakers are buzzing about President Obama's latest comments on marijuana. "I don't think it's more dangerous than alcohol," Obama told New Yorker editor David Remnick. He went on to say that from personal experience, he views pot as a "vice and a bad habit," one he discourages his own daughters from trying. However, what concerns him more is the disproportionate number of marijuana arrests among minorities: "Middle class kids don't get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do."

The President's statements have caused quite a stir, some calling his lax attitude about pot use irresponsible, others praising his progressive stance.

Of all the commentary on Obama's remarks, The Wall Street Journal provided the most thoughtful response. The Journal urges us to sift through "the political haze" and look at the facts. First, while it's true that marijuana may not be more dangerous than alcohol, it's still dangerous--especially for the developing adolescent brain. Research has linked teen marijuana use to impaired memory, learning, and even psychosis.

Second, the President should be commended for his belief that no one should be incarcerated for marijuana use. But for all intents and purposes, this is already the case. Very few Americans are jailed for mere possession of marijuana. Of those in prison for marijuana-related charges, most are there not simply because of drug use, but because of violent criminal pasts. Now, it's true that minorities make up the bulk of marijuana arrests and this is something we as a society must remedy--given that African Americans and Latinos are no more likely to use pot than their white counterparts. However, in most cases, an arrest for marijuana doesn't lead to time behind bars.

Third, usage is increasing. Wherever you stand on this issue, this point is undeniable. Among Americans aged 12 and older, regular marijuana use has risen significantly since 2007. In recent years, daily pot use among teens has gone up by 25 to 50 percent compared to the low levels reached between 2006 and 2008. These rates are likely to increase even further with legalization in Washington and Colorado.

The President is right that only time will tell how legalization will play out in these two states. Meanwhile, he should recognize that when you hold the highest office in the land, your words mean something. For this reason, he and other public officials can't afford to be so cavalier. Although Obama's youthful experimentation with pot did not have serious negative consequences, other young people haven't been so lucky. We see this every day at Phoenix House, where we treat kids whose marijuana use is not merely "a bad habit," but a roadblock that prevents them from succeeding in school or enjoying healthy relationships. For these teens, the problem isn't the law or the punishment; it's the drug itself.

Public opinion favors marijuana legalization--and the President didn't say anything we haven't heard before. Still, Obama missed a critical opportunity to rise above the hype. What if, instead of repeating the same tired arguments in favor of legalization, the President had instead focused on the "now what" factor? If, in fact, legalization is a bad idea whose time has come, how will we deal with the likelihood of even greater usage? How will our healthcare system be prepared in the event that rising usage leads to increased rates of marijuana addiction? How can parents teach their teens that legal doesn't equal harmless? Now that's an interview I'd like to read.