Why it's time for Obama to talk about legalizing marijuana

President Barack Obama received tremendous accolades when he became the first U.S. president to support same-sex marriage. In that now-historic interview on ABC News last May, the president said that his daughters’ friends and their same-sex parents had helped to evolve his position on the issue.

Mr. Obama isn’t the only politician to use proximity as justification for his evolution on the topic. Politicians from both sides of the aisle have claimed that gay friends, family and servicemen and women they’ve known helped persuade them. Most notably, Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio reversed his opinion on gay marriage after his son came out of the closet.

If the president needs to be close to an issue to help him better empathize with those most affected by it, it’s a wonder that our first black president, who has admitted to smoking pot in his youth, has yet to have the same epiphany as to why he should begin the conversation on legalizing marijuana.

Blacks 4x more likely to be arrested for pot

According to a new study by the American Civil Liberties Union, blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than their white counterparts, although both races use the drug at the same rates. In fact, black arrests for pot possession have increased under President Obama. The vast majority of those arrests are not of drug lords or kingpins, but of black men who are caught carrying small amounts of marijuana.

This disparity within the “war on drugs” and the severity of its punishments are destroying the potential of a large part of the black community and by extension, America itself. It’s leading to long-term incarceration, unemployment, poverty, and black children who will grow up without their fathers.

Last month the president gave a powerful commencement speech at Morehouse College, an all-male historically black institution. President Obama said that his success was due to “the special obligation I felt, as a black man like you, to help those who need it most, people who didn’t have the opportunities that I had – because there but for the grace of God, go I. I might have been in their shoes. I might have been in prison. I might have been unemployed. I might not have been able to support a family. And that motivates me.”

This is where and when African-Americans need the first black president to act.

‘The New Jim Crow’

Black mothers and daughters in 2008 and 2012 hit the streets with campaign flyers, knocked on doors, organized their communities and waited in long voting lines in support of Barack Obama because they felt in their hearts that he would make a difference for them and their families. Now as president, his silence and inaction on the drug war has seen even more of their sons, brothers, and fathers succumb to mass incarceration, or as author Michelle Alexander calls it “The New Jim Crow.”

The president, who is known to be a canny politician, has the support of public opinion on this issue, much as he did when he endorsed the legalization of gay marriage. According to a Pew Research poll released in April, a majority of Americans now support legalizing marijuana.

Colorado and Washington have both decriminalized the recreational use of marijuana. New York is eliminating jail time for those found with small amounts. While this is all very encouraging, the rate of federal progress on this issue is far too slow, and the price of inaction is far too high.

‘Barry’ can’t do this all by himself

To be fair, the president cannot do this all by himself. But he does possess the bully pulpit. Although public opinion for gay marriage was already rising before he announced his conversion, gay rights progress seems to have snowballed since he stepped into the fray.

Mr. President, you need not talk to anyone about this topic to help you evolve. You only have to remember young ‘Barry’ Obama and his experimentation with marijuana to realize what could have been if he had been arrested and faced the same draconian laws so many other young black men face today.

You need only say to yourself, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”

David A. Wilson is a filmmaker and the founder of theGrio. Follow him on Twitter