WASHINGTON, Oct. 25, 2009 -- With the Obama administration's decision not to prosecute medicinal marijuana dealers and users, even though they violate federal law, the country is "probably in the process now of legalizing marijuana," conservative columnist George F. Will said today.
Speaking on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," Will compared what has been happening with marijuana with the gradual changes in laws regarding alcohol, gambling and even prostitution.
"We have legalized gambling in this country over two generations. It used to be considered a sin and a crime. With no national debate, and no decision moment, we just did it," Will said. "We legalized prostitution as anyone who opens a telephone book and looks under 'escort' can tell you. And we may be doing, probably in the process now of legalizing marijuana."
It is not just the new Obama administration policy on marijuana, but the expanding definitions of medical applications for the drug in the growing number of states that allow pot to be grown, sold and used as a treatment for various conditions.
"Now medical use can be marijuana to cure anxiety, to cure insomnia, all the rest," Will said.
The new policy -- a striking shift from the hard line taken by the Bush administration -- sparked a wide-ranging discussion today on "This Week."
"Woody Harrelson is really happy about it," joked Fox News contributor and radio show host Laura Ingraham, who appeared on "This Week" as a guest commentator. She called it the "Cheech and Chong initiative" of all the Obama adminstration's initiatives.
Last week the Obama administration announced it would not seek to federally prosecute individuals who use or dispensaries that provide medicinal marijuana, as long as they complied with state law.
Instead, a Justice Department memo said state prosecutors should pursue "significant traffickers" of illegal drugs, including marijuana.
"We will not use our limited resources in the fight against the marijuana trade against those people who are using it consistent with state law and to fight serious illnesses, such as cancer or other diseases," Attorney General Eric Holder said last week.
The new policy is a significant departure from the Bush administration's, which called for enforcing federal anti-marijuana laws, regardless of state laws.
Using and providing medicinal marijuana is legal in 14 states: Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.
Marijuana Is a 'Mixed Bag' for Many
But John Podesta, who was White House chief of staff for President Clinton and is the president and CEO of the progressive think tank Center for American Progress, said the attorney general is looking at a broader picture.
"I think that what Eric Holder did was to say look, we have scarce resources. We're not going to go after people with glaucoma or cancer or whatever on medical marijuana. They're still going with a vengeance really against the Mexican drug cartels. So I think there's -- this is kind of a mixed bag," said Podesta, who also served on President Obama's transition team.
"The United States has the highest prison population of any country in the world, and I think that largely has been the result of mandatory prison sentences as a result of junk laws, and I think that these changes that we're seeing now probably will ripple back," he continued. "And I think that's a place that people really have to consider whether they want to incarcerate this large number of people and the cost of that in our society."
Al Hunt, Washington, D.C., bureau chief for Bloomberg News, agreed that resources could be better spent elsewhere.
"Well, now that I no longer have a teenager, I have a little bit different view, a bit more permissive," he said. "I don't think it's a great utilization of scarce federal resources to be prosecuting pot.
"I am not sure if it's going to lead to what George suggests [eventual legalization]. I'm not sure that would be a bad idea," he said. "But I was at the University of Mississippi a couple of years ago and it's interesting, they grow marijuana on the campus. So, times are a-changing."
Taxing Pot to Pay for Health Care?
However, there was one circumstance under which Podesta thought "full legalization" could occur.
"I think we won't see a full legalization of marijuana until somebody figures out that if you tax it, maybe you can pay for health care," he said.
Will also said taxing marijuana could be a way to go after Mexican drug cartels.
"Eighty percent of the revenue of the Mexican cartels is marijuana. If you really want to go after the Mexican cartels, and I'm not saying that is the only criterion for public policy, you'd legalize marijuana," he said.
Public Sympathy on the Side of Medicinal Marijuana
Legalizing marijuana remains controversial, but the public is less divided on medicinal marijuana. A March 2001 Pew Research Center poll showed that nearly 75 percent of those polled were in favor of allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana for medical purposes to treat their patients.
"I think all of us have either gone through cancer or family members, and it's a terribly painful disease. I think you have a lot of sympathy. There's a lot of public sympathy for medical marijuana use," Ingraham said.
Cynthia Tucker, political columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper, called for a broader view of the administration's policy change.
"I really think instead of just acting in a small way to say, marijuana isn't such a bad thing, let's relook at all of our drug laws, the way we fight the so-called war on drugs, because it isn't working," she said.