The American people once elected a president who favored decriminalizing marijuana. Jimmy Carter endorsed the change in 1976 as a candidate and again after taking office. Nothing happened, and more decades have been wasted in the war on cannabis and other drugs.
Now we have a president who, like his two immediate predecessors, got baked in his youth yet has declined to push for any major change in federal drug laws. Barack Obama, however, has indicated some willingness to dial back prohibition.
In a recent interview with The New Yorker magazine, the president said he regards smoking weed "as a bad habit and a vice" but added, "I don't think it is more dangerous than alcohol." Is it less dangerous than alcohol? Yes, "in terms of its impact on the individual consumer," Obama admitted.
He also noted the disparity of enforcement: "Middle-class kids don't get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do." Asked about legalization, he responded mildly that its advocates "are probably overstating the case." That's a notable departure from 2009, when he mocked a question about it during a video town hall meeting.
But a change of tone would be cold comfort without a change of policy. In some significant ways, Obama has moved away from the intolerant mindset that has afflicted every recent president going back to Ronald Reagan.
The biggest surprise is his stance toward the legalization experiments in Colorado and Washington.
When the issue was placed on the ballot, White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske publicly rejected the idea but didn't make a big deal of it. Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, told me, "His silence on those measures in 2012 was noticeable."
More important is what the administration did after they passed: It backed off. The Justice Department could have instructed federal prosecutors to go after marijuana possession and sales, to dramatize the president's stern opposition. Instead, it instructed them to let the states go their own way, focusing federal enforcement on preventing major drug trafficking and sales to minors.
Had the initiatives passed under George W. Bush, the enforcement policy would have been less indulgent.
Not standing in the way of states trying legalization is a big deal. It shows a somewhat open mind about the wisdom of the status quo and the practical effects of liberalization. Not since Carter was in the White House has an administration been willing to concede that there may be alternatives to the drug war.