As Barack Obama says the drug is no more dangerous than alcohol, we ask if American society is ready for legalisation.

US President Barack Obama has openly admitted to smoking marijuana as a young man. Now he is stirring the debate on legalising the drug.

In an interview with The New Yorker, Obama said: "I don't think it [marijuana] is more dangerous than alcohol ... in terms of its impact on the individual consumer."

His comments to the American magazine come at a sensitive time as the lobby to decriminalise the drug gathers pace.

Obama said the legalisation of marijuana in the states of Colorado and Washington would be a challenge, but he added: "It's important to go forward because it's important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished."

However, he also sounded a note of caution: "Those who argue that legalised marijuana is a panacea and it solves all these social problems, I think, are probably overstating the case."

Marijuana remains illegal in the United States under federal law, but 21 states allow or are about to allow marijuana for medical use. Colorado and Washington have just passed laws to decriminalise the use of the drug and, in December, Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalise the sale, cultivation and distribution of cannabis.

Decriminalising marijuana would see offences managed by issuing fines or other civil penalties. But there are no criminal arrests or charges. If the drug is legalised, it would not be a criminal offence, but instead be regulated like alcohol and tobacco - possibly with a few more restrictions. Attitudes towards marijuana are changing within American society. A Gallup poll last October in the US found for the first time that a majority of Americans - 58 percent - favoured legalising it, and 39 percent said it should remain illegal.

This a huge swing from when Gallup first asked the question in 1969; back then only 12 percent of those asked said marijuana should be legalised.

The so-called war on drugs has also been costly, and to date, not particularly successful.

The Bush-era operation 'Fast and Furious' allowed hundreds of US weapons to be passed to suspected gun smugglers, in the hope that they could be traced to Mexican drug cartels. But the US lost track of the weapons.

The Merida Initiative launched in 2008 gave anti-drugs training and aid to Mexico and other Central American countries. But Mexico's own war on drugs has claimed an estimated of 60,000 lives over the past eight years.

The US currently gives Colombia $1.3bn in military aid to tackle drug cartels, yet cocaine production in Colombia is still among the highest in the world.

So, is the US ready to legalise cannabis? Is marijuana really less harmful than alcohol? Can legalisation lead to less crime? And what impact could legalisation have on other countries in the region?

To discuss this, Inside Story presenter Adrian Finigan is joined by guests: Dan Riffle, the director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, and a former district prosecutor; and Jeffrey Reynolds, the executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

Tags: Government, Law, Smoking, cannibis, marijuana

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Replies to This Discussion

I'm no expert, but from what I've read about marijuana, it appears to be less harmful than alcohol, at least to the individual.

Sure Spud, whatever your perspective, the 'war on drugs' has been a failure, with it's mega-criminality, brutal and unfair treatment of petty offenders and police corruption.

I am familiar with a wide range of recreational drugs and the majority are less harmful than alcohol. In my opinion, these drugs should be decriminalised for possession and thoroughly regulated and taxed. Addicts should be entitled to the same health precautions and care as alcoholics. Mega-crime and corruption would thereby come to a near end.

I don't know much about recreational drugs, but other than that, I totally agree.

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