Obama back in 2004 advocated decriminalizing marijuana, a position he held through his run in the White House. But hasn't talked much about it since. And now that Colorado and Washington state have legalized pot, the president's position could face renewed scrutiny
Now that two states have legalized recreational use of marijuana, the Obama administration insists it continues to support the current federal law that makes pot illegal. But it wasn't that long ago that President Barack Obama supported eliminating criminal penalties for marijuana use.
Video from a 2004 Illinois Senate debate shows Obama voicing support for decriminalizing marijuana.
"In terms of the legalization of drugs, I think the battle, the war on drugs has been an utter failure, and I think we need to re-think and decriminalize our marijuana laws," Obama told students at Northwestern University in January 2004. "But I am not somebody who believes in legalization of marijuana. What I do believe is that we need to re-think how we are operating in the drug wars, and that currently we are not doing a good job."
At the time, Obama was an Illinois state lawmaker seeking the Democratic nomination for a U.S. Senate seat. He'd win that race, and four years later famously begin his quest for the White House.
During a fall 2007 debate among Democratic presidential hopefuls, Obama seemed to equivocate on the issue. Video from that debate shows Obama half-raising his hand, almost confused, when other candidates declared they opposed decriminalizing marijuna. But Obama's campaign clarified that he still held the same position as 2004: he believed marijuana laws should be decriminalized. That made him the only major party candidate at the time to stake out that position.
Both videos were shot by campaign operatives who shadowed Obama at the time, expecting they may one day have to face him in an election. They were provided to me at the time, and were used in stories filed in 2007 and 2008 in The Washington Post and The Washington Times. At the time, the big debate was over legalization of medical marijuana.
But now they take on new significance: Washington state and Colorado on Nov. 6 legalized the recreational use of pot, the first such states to do so.
Obama has not addressed the pot issue since the election. The Washington Guardian pressed the White House for an answer on where he stands, and was referred to the U.S. Justice Department, where a spokesman said the administration supports enforcing the current laws declaring marijuana illegal.
"The Department’s enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged," spokeswoman Nana Chitre said. "In enacting the Controlled Substances Act, Congress determined that marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance. We are reviewing the ballot initiatives and have no additional comment at this time."
In his memoir, Dreams From My Father, Obama acknowledged as a young man experimenting with pot and other drugs for a short time. “I had learned not to care. I blew a few smoke rings, remembering those years. Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it," he wrote, adding he quickly turned away from drugs to build a successful career.
Those admissions were reexamined earlier this year when author and reporter David Maraniss wrote a new book  that provided more detail about Obama's drug usage as a young adult.
Even as officials in Washington review their options, Colorado and Washington state are now wrestling with the issue of how to handle drivers intoxicated on pot when their new laws take effect.
Colorado's measure doesn't make any changes to the state's driving-under-the-influence laws, leaving lawmakers and police to worry about its effect on road safety, according to The Associated Press.
"We're going to have more impaired drivers," warned John Jackson, police chief in the Denver suburb of Greenwood Village.
Washington's law does change DUI provisions by setting a new blood-test limit for marijuana — a limit police are training to enforce, and which some lawyers are already gearing up to challenge.
"We've had decades of studies and experience with alcohol," said Washington State Patrol spokesman Dan Coon. "Marijuana is new, so it's going to take some time to figure out how the courts and prosecutors are going to handle it. But the key is impairment: We will arrest drivers who drive impaired, whether it be drugs or alcohol."
Drugged driving is illegal, and nothing in the measures that Washington and Colorado voters passed this month to tax and regulate the sale of pot for recreational use by adults over 21 changes that. But law enforcement officials wonder about whether the ability to buy or possess marijuana legally will bring about an increase of marijuana users on the roads.
Statistics gathered for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed that in 2009, a third of fatally injured drivers with known drug test results were positive for drugs other than alcohol. Among randomly stopped weekend nighttime drivers in 2007, more than 16 percent were positive for drugs.
The Associated Press contributed to the section of this story on driving laws.