Pres. Obama made his most pointed and expansive comments yet about marijuana legalization to a Jamaican audience yesterday.
"I just like the vibe here," he began before fielding questions. One came from a Rasta, Miguel "Steppa" Williams, who asked about his stance on "hemp legalization."
In a wide-ranging six-minute answer, Obama responded:
"How did I anticipate this question? How did I guess this question? I do want to separate out what are serious issues in the United States and then how that relates to our foreign policy and our interactions with the region. There is the issue of legalization of marijuana and then there is the issue of decriminalizing, or dealing with the incarceration and in some cases devastation of communities as a consequence of nonviolent drug offenses.
'I am a very strong believer that the path that we have taken in the United States in the so-called War on Drugs has been so heavy in emphasizing incarceration that it has been counter-productive.
"You have young people who did not engage in violence, who get very long penalties, get placed in prison, and then are rendered economically unemployable, are almost pushed into then the underground economy, learn crime more effectively in prison, families are devastated. So it's been very unproductive. What we're trying to do is to reform our criminal justice system… It's very expensive to incarcerate people… That's one issue.
"There's then the second issue of legalizing marijuana - whether it's medical marijuana or recreational use.
'There are two states in the United States that have embarked on an experiment to decriminalize or legalize marijuana - Colorado and Washington State. We will see how that experiment works its way thorough the process.
'Right now that is not federal policy and I do not foresee anytime soon Congress changing the law at a national basis. But I do think that if there are states that show that they are not suddenly a magnet for additional crime, that they have a strong enough public health infrastructure to push against the potential of increased addiction, then it's conceivable that that will spur on a national debate. But that is going to be some time. off
"Then the third issue is what will U.S. international policy be?… I know on paper a lot of folks think if we just legalize marijuana then it will reduce the money flowing into the transnational drug trade, there's more revenues and jobs created. I have to tell you that it's not a silver bullet, because first of all, if you are legalizing marijuana, then how do you deal with other drugs and where do you draw the line? Second of all, as is true in the global economy generally, if you have a bunch of small, medium-size marijuana businesses scattered across the Caribbean, and this is suddenly legal, if you think that big multi-national companies are not going to suddenly come in and market and try to control and profit from the trade - that's I think is a very real scenario.
"I think we have to have a conversation about this, but our current policy continues to be that in the United States we need to decrease demand, we need to focus on a public health approach to decreasing demand. We have to stop the flow of guns and cash into the Caribbean and Central America and Latin America. At the same time, they have to cooperate with us to try to shrink the power of the transnational drug organizations that are vicious and hugely destructive.
'If we combine a public health perspective, a focus on not simply throwing every low-level person with possession into prison. but try to get them treatment. If we combine that economic development and alternative opportunities for youth, then I think we can strike the right balance.
"It may not comport completely with your vision for the future, but I think that we can certainly have a smarter approach to it than we currently do."
Afterwards, Obama visited the Bob Marley Museum at 56 Hope Road in Kingston. "I still have all the albums," he noted.