Our Commander in Chief made an official visit to the Caribbean island nation of Jamaica last week and was met with a direct question about marijuana policy from an unlikely source. President Obama met with government officials but also found time to visit the Bob Marley Museum, former home of the world’s most famous reggae singer and pot smoker before his passing decades ago. But it wasn’t all smiles and chill vibes, as a Rasta held the President’s feet to the fire on the issue of marijuana legalization in the United States.
At a town hall event in Kingston, the capital city, the microphone was passed to a gentleman in the crowd who was easily identified as a Rastafarian, the spiritual following in Jamaica that traces their roots back to Haile Selassie I, the former Emperor of Ethiopia, and includes dreadlocks and a lot of marijuana smoking. Miguel Williams, wearing a “Rasta4life” wristband, introduced himself and welcomed Obama to the island in typical singsong charming fashion before he got down to business.
“Give thanks! Yes greetings Mr. President,” said Williams, “life and blessings on you and your family.”
“My name is Miguel Williams but you can call I and I ‘steppa’… That is quite sufficient, ya man.”
Niceties out of the way, Williams asked the Pres about his position on legalizing marijuana both in the U.S. and Jamaica, saying that he wanted to “overstand and understand” Obama’s stance. The juxtaposition of the U.S. President and a Jamaican Rasta was not lost on the crowd, providing a moment of levity amid chuckles and anticipation. Even President Obama joined in, joking as he started with, “How did I anticipate this question?”
“There is the issue of legalization of marijuana and then there is the issue of decriminalizing,” Obama answered. “Or dealing with the incarceration in some cases devastation of communities as a consequence of non-violent drug offenses.”
With Williams and the rest of the town hall meeting hanging on his every word, Obama continued, “I am a very strong believer that the path that we have taken in the United States in the so-called ‘war on drugs’ has been so heavy in emphasizing incarceration that it has been counterproductive.”
Our President, who has seen several states vote in legal recreational marijuana and the majority of states legalizing medical marijuana under his term, explained that the Draconian U.S. pot laws push non-violent offenders into the prison system, where they essentially become un-employable and further disenfranchised with little hope for reform or productivity to society.
His answer was met with a few low-key cheers and a lot of head nodding, but Obama warned that the United States was a long way off from outright legalization, even though reform was well under way.
“I do not foresee, any time soon, Congress changing the law at a national basis,” he said. Speaking on the complex relationship with U.S. drug laws and enforcement with its regional neighbors, including Jamaica, Obama told Williams that marijuana legalization was also not a panacea to drug trafficking and crime.
“I have to tell you,” Obama said, “That it’s not a silver bullet, because, first of all, if you are legalizing marijuana, then how do you deal with other drugs and where do you draw the line?”
Before thanking the crowd on and moving on from the inquisitive Rasta to other questions, President Obama also heeded a warning about the rapidly shifting landscape of marijuana commercialism.
“If you think that big multinational companies are not going to suddenly come in and market and try to control and profit from the trade,” he said. “that’s, I think, a very real scenario.”
You can watch the exchange here: