President Barack Obama said during a YouTube interview Thursday that he believes more states will consider legalizing recreational marijuana, citing his administration's hands-off approach to prohibition-ending cannabis laws in Colorado and Washington state.
“What you’re seeing now is Colorado, Washington, through state referenda, they’re experimenting with legal marijuana," Obama said in response to host Hank Green. "The position of my administration has been that we still have federal laws that classify marijuana as an illegal substance, but we’re not going to spend a lot of resources trying to turn back decisions that have been made at the state level on this issue. My suspicion is that you’re gonna see other states start looking at this."
Obama went on to say that he has asked his Department of Justice to examine how nonviolent drug offenders are being treated by the justice system.
"What we have done is instead of focusing on treatment -- the same way we focused, say, with tobacco or drunk driving or other problems where we treat it as public health problem -- we’ve treated this exclusively as a criminal problem," Obama said. "I think that it’s been counterproductive, and it’s been devastating in a lot of minority communities. It presents the possibility at least of unequal application of the law, and that has to be changed.”
Recreational use of marijuana is legal in Colorado and Washington, and will soon be allowed in Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C. Federal law, however, continues to declare all uses of marijuana illegal. Department of Justice guidance urges federal prosecutors to refrain from targeting state-legal marijuana operations.
The United States, home to 5 percent of the world’s population, has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Harsh sentences for nonviolent drug crimes have bolstered that figure. A 2013 American Civil Liberties Union report found that blacks were nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites.
Marijuana Majority's Tom Angell told The Huffington Post that Obama's prediction affirms what legalization in Colorado and Washington has demonstrated "about generating tax revenue, reducing crime and freeing up limited police resources."
Legislatures in Vermont and Rhode Island are considering legalizing recreational marijuana this year. Even if that doesn't happen, one or both states are "very likely" to do so in 2016, said Mason Tvert, communications director for Marijuana Policy Project.
Nevada, Arizona, California, Massachusetts, Maine and Nevada are all expected to have ballot initiatives that would legalize recreational marijuana for adults next year, with regulatory frameworks similar to Colorado's. Tvert said Ohio and Missouri also are considering putting legalization measures on the ballot in 2016.
Kevin Sabet, co-founder of anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said he saw Obama's statements as "two steps back for the legalization movement."
"What is interesting to me is that the president did not take the opportunity to endorse legalization -- though he could have," Sabet told HuffPost. "The president is right that we need a balanced public health and public safety strategy for drugs. Indeed, as he says, we need to focus on treatment. Legalization advocates would rather just focus on letting people use drugs."