To legalize or criminalize Marijuana and Drugs?

Log In / Sign Up

President Obama wants to treat marijuana like tobacco but not legalize it. Wait, what?
Updated by German Lopez on February 27, 2015, 12:00 p.m. ET @germanrlopez


President Barack Obama speaks to a reporter. KMBC
President Barack Obama on Thursday said he wants to treat marijuana like tobacco, which is legal. But, in a bit of a contradiction, he also suggested he opposes marijuana legalization.

In an interview with Kansas City news station KMBC, Obama said states could change their marijuana laws to discourage pot use in the same way tobacco use is discouraged:

As a general matter, I think that we have to separate out legalization — you know, there’s a lot of concern about drug abuse of any sort by our children and the general population — versus the heavy criminalization of non-violent drug offenses. And I think that a lot of states are taking a look to see, do we have proportionality in terms of how we are penalizing the recreational user? We still want to discourage that. But we’ve been able to discourage tobacco, we’ve been able to discourage a lot of other bad things that people do, through a public health approach as opposed to an incarceration approach.

The president drew a key distinction in his comments, which echo previous statements he made to CNN. He appears to support marijuana decriminalization, which would remove criminal penalties, particularly prison time, attached to the drug. But he doesn’t seem to support marijuana legalization, which would remove even misdemeanor penalties, including small fines, and potentially allow retail outlets to sell pot.

There’s an obvious contradiction in Obama’s comments: he vouches for treating marijuana like tobacco, but tobacco isn’t just decriminalized — it’s legal and sold in stores, and excluded from the federal government’s scheduling system, which evaluates drugs for medical value first and abuse potential second.

Despite its legality and availability, tobacco use plummeted in the past few decades, thanks to education campaigns, mandatory warning labels, public and workplace smoking bans, and higher taxes on tobacco products. Marijuana legalization advocates point to the trend as evidence that even a highly addictive substance can be legal and contained.


Most likely, the president is only endorsing the education campaigns, public smoking bans, and other public health measures that helped reduce tobacco use. But the exclusion misses how warning labels and higher taxes on tobacco managed to push down consumption over the decades — and neither of those approaches are possible in a black market in which regulations can’t touch the product at all.

Obama’s support of marijuana decriminalization but not legalization also helps show that marijuana policy reform can be handled in various ways — a point drug policy experts have tried to make in the past few years, as several states have moved to fully legalize pot.

“One of the things we’ve been working very hard in marijuana legalization discussions is to get people to recognize there are at least 10 different fundamental architectures for legalizing marijuana,” Jon Caulkins, a drug policy expert at Carnegie Mellon University, recently said.

In a January report on marijuana legalization for the Vermont legislature, Caulkins and other experts outlined 12 alternatives to the current model of prohibition. Among the options: continued prohibition with decreased penalties, legalization with commercial sales, letting adults grow marijuana, allow distribution only within small private clubs, and have the state government operate the supply chain and sell pot.

The four states that voted to legalize marijuana chose to fully legalize and allow commercial sales, and Washington, DC, only legalized possession, growing, and gifting. But there’s plenty of room in between commercialization and criminal prohibition, as Obama and policy experts have pointed out.

Further reading

The risks of alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs, explained
How scientists rank drugs from most to least dangerous — and why the rankings are flawed
Eric Holder is wrong: the Obama administration could reclassify marijuana if it wanted to
How does the US decide which drugs are regulated or banned?
The US uses what’s called the drug scheduling system. Under the Controlled Substances Act, there are five categories of controlled substances known as schedules, which weigh a drug’s medical value first and its abuse potential second.


Under the US system, heroin is in the same schedule as marijuana. (Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

A controlled substance is placed in its schedule based on its medical value and potential for abuse. Medical value is typically evaluated through scientific research, particularly large-scale clinical trials similar to those used by the Food and Drug Administration for pharmaceuticals. Potential for abuse isn’t defined by the Controlled Substances Act, but for the federal government, abuse is when individuals take a substance on their own initiative, leading to personal health hazards or dangers to society as a whole.

Under this system, schedule 1 drugs are considered to have no medical value and some potential for abuse. Schedule 2 drugs have high potential for abuse but some medical value. As the rank goes down to schedule 5, a drug’s potential for abuse decreases while its medical value may increase.

It may be helpful to think of the scheduling system as made up of two distinct groups: non-medical and medical. The non-medical group is the schedule 1 drugs, which are considered to have no medical value but aren’t numerically ranked based on abuse potential. The medical group is the schedule 2 to 5 drugs, which have some medical value and are numerically ranked based on abuse potential.

Marijuana and heroin are schedule 1 drugs, so the federal government says they have a potential for abuse and no medical value. Cocaine, meth, and opioid painkillers are schedule 2 drugs, so they’re considered to have some medical value and high potential for abuse. Steroids and testosterone products are schedule 3, Xanax and Valium are schedule 4, and cough preparations with limited amounts of codeine are schedule 5. Congress specifically exempted alcohol and tobacco from the schedules in 1970.

Although these schedules help shape criminal penalties for illicit drug possession and sales, they’re not always the final word. Congress, for instance, massively increased penalties against crack cocaine in 1986 in response to concerns about a so-called crack epidemic and its potential link to crime.

Other countries, like the UK and Australia, use similar systems to the US, although their specific rankings for some drugs differ.

To read more about the American drug scheduling system, read Vox’s full explainer.

Everything you need to know about the war on drugs
FILED UNDER: Marijuana Legalization, War on Drugs, Politics, Criminal Justice, Policy and Politics
Read This

Color perception scientist says he’s never seen anything like the color-changing dress
This dress is tearing the internet apart and we can’t explain it (yet)
US troops just paraded along the Russian border. Is that as insane as it sounds?
The simple economic principle that can help you get a better deal at hotels SUPPORTED BY 939199049 discover logo revrs 260×60 1
Map: European colonialism conquered every country in the world but these five
What that weird dress tells us about the metaphysics of consciousness

Most Read
President Obama wants to treat marijuana like tobacco but not legalize it. Wait, what?
Study: lighter-skinned black and Hispanic people look smarter to white people
The sick and twisted history of Ultron, Marvel’s lesson about the singularity
Steve Jobs’ best advice for managers
What linguists say about Kevin Spacey’s bizarre Southern accent on House of Cards
Play one-day fantasy basketball and get a 100% deposit bonus
Get Vox in your inbox!

By signing up, you agree to our terms.

v1.4, January 1, 2015 / Terms of Use / Privacy Policy
© 2015 Vox Media, Inc. All Rights Reserved
All Systems Operational Check out our status page for more details.
Get Vox in your inbox!

By signing up, you agree to our terms.
Advertise with us
Jobs @ Vox Media
Contact us