The Washington Times - January 27, 2011, 06:45PM

Facing a growing movement to legalize the use of marijuana and other drugs, President Obama on Thursday said they should stay illegal but suggested that governments spend more time trying to reduce demand, rather than punishing nonviolent first-time offenders.

YouTube users ranked questions about the nation’s drug policy higher than any other subject in an interview with Mr. Obama that also touched on competition with China, deportations and the Super Bowl. It’s at least the third time the queries about legalization have dominated submissions to a virtual town hall with the president, who called it an “entirely legitimate topic for debate.”

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“I am not in favor of legalization,” Mr. Obama said in response to a question posed by a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. “I am a strong believer that we have to think more about drugs as a public health problem. When you think about other damaging activities in our society — smoking, drunk driving, making sure you’re wearing seatbelts — typically we’ve made huge strides in the last 30 years by changing people’s attitudes. And on drugs, I think that a lot of times we’ve been so focused on arrests, incarceration, interdiction that we don’t spend as much time thinking about, how do we shrink demand.”

Mr. Obama described the issue as something the White House is “looking at very carefully,” adding that while law enforcement must be tough on violent drug cartels, governments may want to revisit penalties for nonviolent first-time drug offenders.

The answer is a far cry from 2009, when he angered legalization advocates by laughing off a question about whether regulating and taxing marijuana would help improve the nation’s fiscal situation.