President Barack Obama (Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press)

Obama’s real talk: Pot ‘shouldn’t be young people’s biggest priority’

President Barack Obama wants young Americans to reconsider their political priorities.

In a new interview with Vice (above at the 14:20 mark), Obama talked extensively on marijuana law reform — and the president had a strong reaction to the fact that the pot topic was the “number one question from everyone on the Internet,” as Vice founder Shane Smith said in the interview.

“For young people,” Smith said, “I’m sorry, but if you legalize marijuana it would be the biggest part of your legacy.”

Obama spoke directly to the issue — and to youths.

“It shouldn’t be young people’s biggest priority,” Obama said. “Let’s put it in perspective. Young people, I understand this is important to you. But you should be thinking about climate change, the economy, jobs, war and peace.

“Maybe way at the bottom you should be thinking about marijuana.

Obama then pointed out a couple possible options for moving forward.

“I’d separate out the issue of decriminalization of marijuana from encouraging its use,” Obama said. “There is no doubt that our criminal justice system generally is so heavily skewed toward cracking down on nonviolent drug offenders that it has not just had a terrible effect on many communities, particularly communities of color, rendering a lot of folks unemployable because they got felony records, disproportionate prison sentences. It costs a huge amount of money to states. And a lot of states are starting to figure that out.”

There appears to be hope on the horizon of the complicated issue, Obama said.

“What I’m encouraged by is, you’re starting to see not just liberal Democrats but also some very conservative Republicans recognize this doesn’t make sense, including the Libertarian wing of the Republican Party. They see the money and how costly it is to incarcerate. So we may actually be able to make some progress on the decriminalization side.

“At a certain point if enough states end up decriminalizing then Congress may then reschedule marijuana, but I always say to folks, legalization or decriminalization is not a panacea. Do you feel the same way about meth? Do we feel the same way about coke? How about crack? How about heroin? There is a legitimate, I think, concern about the overall effects this has on society, and particularly vulnerable parts of our society. Substance abuse, generally legal and illegal substances, is a problem. Locking somebody up for 20 years is probably not the best strategy. And that’s something we need to rethink as a society as a whole.”

Legalization advocate Tom Angell of the Marijuana Majority said he understands the president’s urge for refocusing, but he also encouraged Obama to still listen to the people — and act on their pleas.

“The president is right that as voters force more and more changes to state marijuana laws, national policymakers will have no choice but to catch up,” Angell said. “But he should think again about how important this issue is. On average, there’s a marijuana possession arrest in the U.S. about every minute. Billions of dollars are wasted on enforcing prohibition laws that don’t stop anyone from using marijuana but do ruin people’s lives with damaging criminal records. And the black market is controlled by drug cartels and gangs that use violence to protect their profits.

“This is a serious issue, and the president needs to treat it as such. In fact, his administration can reschedule marijuana without any further Congressional action needed. He should do that.”