Regrettably, President Obama's comments are being read as pot isn't a real problem since alcohol is a legal – and widely accepted drug – for adults, Parham writes. (Photo: Pete Souza/White House)
Obama's presidential wink at marijuana comes when his public opinion ratings are at all-time low and with a dreadful, glassy-eyed comparison to alcohol.
A BBC News headline read: "Barack Obama: 'Marijuana no more dangerous than alcohol.'"
After admitting his own well-documented pot smoking as a "kid" and cigarettes as an adult, Obama said, "I don't think it is more dangerous than alcohol."
Regrettably, his comments are being read as pot isn't a real problem since alcohol is a legal – and widely accepted drug – for adults.
Given his own history with seeming addiction – inhaling harmful substances – one would have hoped he would have been more clear-headed.
First, let's review the dangers of alcohol.
This is what the White House blog said on May 28, 2013: "Simply put, the nexus between alcohol use and crime is...well documented. You'd be hard pressed to find anyone – particularly in the criminal justice research community – who would dispute the long-established link between the use of a widely available, legal drug like alcohol and crime."
Here are some of the dangers of alcohol identified by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a federal agency: motor impairment, confusion, memory problems, concentration problems, car crashes, risky behavior, violent behavior, and suicide and homicide.
What about fetal alcohol exposure?
"Fetal alcohol exposure occurs when a woman drinks while pregnant. No amount of alcohol is safe for pregnant women to drink," reads the NIAAA website. "Drinking during pregnancy can cause brain damage, leading to a range of developmental, cognitive, and behavioral problems, which can appear at any time during childhood."
Alcohol is a serious enough problem that NIAAA even has an "Alcohol Awareness Month" in April.
An NIAAA news release said in April 2013, "Each year, nearly 80,000 people die from alcohol-related causes, making it the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States. Alcohol problems cost the U.S. $225 billion each year, primarily from lost productivity, but also from health care and property damage costs. These issues affect every American, regardless of whether they drink or not."
The release added that "more than 30 percent of U.S. adults will meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder at some point during their lives. The term 'alcohol use disorder' includes both alcoholism and harmful drinking that has not reached the level of dependence."
Alcohol is indeed a dangerous legal drug for adults that causes lots of pain and enormous lost potential.
And the alcohol industry preys on the vulnerable with misleading advertisements and generates enormous profits for a few.
Big alcohol is a big social, health and law enforcement problem. Big alcohol has a noted record of fighting tooth-and-nail against all efforts to warn consumers about health-related problems.
Second, let's consider marijuana.
"I think the president needs to speak to his NIH director in charge of drug abuse," said Patrick Kennedy, the nephew of President John F. Kennedy and a former Democratic officeholder. "[She] would tell the president that, in fact, today's modern, genetically modified marijuana, so it's much higher THC levels, far surpass the marijuana that the president acknowledges smoking when he was a young person."
Kennedy said that Obama "is wrong when he says that it isn't very harmful because the new marijuana is not the old marijuana."
Speaking about both tobacco and alcohol, Kennedy said the nation didn't need another substance to add to Big Tobacco and Big Alcohol.
"Alcohol is too powerful an industry to change. And right now, we have a chance to stop another for-profit industry from targeting our public health," said Kennedy.
Obama did say that he had told his daughters that smoking pot was a "bad idea."
But the "bad idea" gets lost when he nods at legalization based on the unfairness of sentencing for poor ethnic youth who use pot compared to what happens to middle-class youth.
Surely Obama knows better than to conflate unfair sentencing laws with legalization of pot.
Our culture is already tipping toward finding alternative approaches to incarceration for nonviolent, minor drug use and drug addiction issues – such as mental health treatment programs.
That makes more sense than legitimizing another harmful substance driven by public naivety and private gain.
Why did Obama need to give a presidential wink at pot, a noted gateway drug to even more harmful drugs?
Does he hope he can boost his terrible public opinion ratings with younger Americans and baby boomers? Is legalization going to be the Democratic Party's wedge issue in states, an approach to voter turnout that Democrats have long-decried about Republicans?
We don't know – yet.
What we do know is what Obama said was misleading and muddled. He misspoke – badly. We do know that we need good government policy based on good health facts, not a Denver Rocky Mountain high.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.