As public opinion in the U.S. -- and here in St. Louis -- shifts towards tolerance of marijuana legalization, President Barack Obama calls pot a vice that's no more unhealthy than alcohol or cigarettes.
In an interview with the New Yorker, Obama seems less interested with how "healthy" marijuana is (or isn't) and is more concerned with racial and economic disparities when it comes to arrests and convictions for marijuana possession.
"Middle class kids don't get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do," Obama says. "And African-American kids and Latino kids are more likely to be poor and less likely to have the resources and the support to avoid unduly harsh penalties."
Missouri currently has one inmate, Jeffrey Mizanskey, in jail for life without parole because of three non-violent, marijuana-related convictions -- the result of a decades-old law that ratchets up punishments for drug crimes faster than punishments for other felonies, like murder.
"We should not be locking up kids or individual users for long stretches of jail time when some of the folks who are writing those laws have probably done the same thing," Obama says. "It's important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished."
Mizanskey, a construction worker in Sedalia who occasionally sold a little weed to friends, will die in prison unless Governor Jay Nixon grants him clemency.
Obama, who admits he lit up when he was young, calls the drug a vice he warns his daughters against but says it's not as harmful to the individual user as other legal substances.
"As has been well documented, I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life," Obama says. The federal government classifies marijuana as a schedule 1 substance, meaning it's highly dangerous and causes severe psychological and physical dependence, like heroin or ecstasy.
"I don't think it is more dangerous than alcohol," Obama continues.
Two states, Colorado and Washington, have voted to legalize pot recreationally, and our neighbor Illinois just approved medical marijuana. But a similar move in Missouri seems far off.
Here in St. Louis, activists are a few thousand signatures away from getting recreational pot on the 2014 ballot. Show Me Cannabis, a leading pro-legalization group, is researching ballot language before launching a campaign for signatures.
St. Louis residents recently voted overwhelmingly in favor of marijuana legalization on Mayor Francis Slay's weekly poll. According to the non-scientific poll, 90 percent of voters were in favor of making weed available for adults. Fifty-nine percent said laws for pot should be equal to laws on alcohol, including an age limit of 21.
Only three percent of voters said people arrested and convicted of marijuana-related crimes should go to jail.
For the first time in history, the majority of Americans now favor legalizing marijuana, according to a Gallup poll.
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