Obama's Comments Stoke Marijuana Debate in Missouri

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COLUMBIA - President Barack Obama's comments published Sunday on his history with marijuana could significantly shape the debate over decriminalization and legalization of the drug in Missouri. 

In an interview published Sunday in New Yorker magazine, Obama said his administration will not interfere with implementation of new state laws that authorize the purchase of marijuana for recreational or medicinal use. 

The administration said it will focus enforcement on targeted goals, such as making sure the drug stays out of the hands of people under the age of 21. 

Obama said he does not believe the drug is more dangerous than drinking alcohol. 

"As has been well documented, I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life," Obama said. "I don't think it is more dangerous than alcohol."

Obama said he supports laws that treat users fairly. The president said too many African-American and Latino children are receiving harsher penalties for marijuana use. 

Dan Viets, a Columbia organizer with Show-Me Cannabis, told KOMU 8 News he welcomes Obama's up-front explanation of his experiences with the drug. 

"It doesn't seem to have harmed his career too much and I think the president is again being honest," Viets said. "He's acknowledging the truth that many Americans are well aware of and that's that marijuana is far less dangerous than alcohol and that there is no justification for treating people who use marijuana responsibly as if they were criminals."

Obama did not say he supports changing the drug's classification under federal law. Federal law treats marijuana as a schedule one controlled substance, which is the same designation given to heroin and cocaine. 

Viets said that position likely favors well politically for the president. 

"He's testing the waters. He's going to make some comments that have both sides appeased I suppose," Viets said. 

Secretary of State Jason Kander's office recently approved several legalization ballot measure proposals from Show-Me Cannabis. If Show-Me Cannabis gets enough signatures, Missouri voters could soon have the chance to make some decisions on whether to change the state's marijuana laws. 

Viets said the group will soon begin public opinion polling to see if it should push the issue on to the November 2014 ballot or wait until November 2016. 

Several state lawmakers have also filed bills in the current legislative session to lessen penalties for marijuana use. 

Several law enforcement officials and medical professionals in Missouri oppose legalization and decriminalization efforts.

When Show-Me Cannabis planned a meeting in Moberly in mid-October last year, Moberly Police Chief Russell Tarr told KOMU 8 News he does not believe legalization would be good for Moberly or the state. 

"I've got about 28 years of law enforcement experience, and during those times I've witnessed a lot of incidents where marijuana has been at homes, car stops, and I believe it leads to worse things," said Tarr back in October. 

In an editorial published Monday, the Jefferson City News-Tribune wrote Missouri should have a "wait and see" approach on marijuana legalization. The board wrote the state should observe the long-term effects of legalization in Colorado and Washington, the two states that have approved the drug for recreational use.