Obama skirts pot query on Web forum

President Obama used the White House´s first-ever “virtual town-hall” meeting to sell his budget, but dismissed with a joke one of the Internet participants’ top topics - the legalization of marijuana as a way to curb escalating drug violence in Mexico.

Mr. Obama framed the marijuana questions solely through the narrow lens of economic recovery and laughed off the issue.

“I don’t know what this says about the online audience,” he said, with the live audience laughing along. “The answer is, no, I don’t think that is a good strategy to grow our economy.”

But many of the pot-related queries, popular among the 3.5 million people who voted at the White House Web site on what questions would be asked, were linked to the U.S.-Mexico border violence that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday said is being fueled by U.S. drug demand and weapons sales.

“It was the tone of his response, the dismissive nature of it, that many people are frustrated with,” said Paul Armentano, spokesman for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

With the threat of violence spilling into the United States, Mr. Obama this week dispatched Mrs. Clinton to Mexico, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and other top officials announced a plan to reallocate manpower to the border to combat drug smuggling into the U.S. and gunrunning and money smuggling south to Mexico.

The fight between the Mexican government and drug cartels has intensified in recent months and has become a hot topic on Capitol Hill and border states such as California.

The California Legislature is debating a bill that would legalize and tax marijuana, and Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard told lawmakers in Congress last week that “the violence we see in Mexico is 60 to 70 percent fueled by one drug: marijuana.”

On Wednesday, during a visit to Mexico, Mrs. Clinton said that “insatiable demand for illegal drugs [in the U.S.] fuels the drug trade.”

“Clearly what we’ve been doing has not worked,” she said, referring to the nation’s past drug policies.

The topic of illicit drugs has come to the fore for a young administration that, unlike its predecessor, has sided with states that want to permit medical use of marijuana by eschewing aggressive federal raids on the drug dispensaries.

It also appointed a drug czar, former Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, who is widely considered to favor drug treatment and intervention over prosecution.

Mr. Obama said this month that he wants to reduce American demand for illegal drugs.

“We do have to treat this as a public-health problem, and we do have to have significant law enforcement,” the president said during an interview with regional newspaper reporters at the White House. “If we can reduce demand, obviously that allows us to focus more effectively where interdiction is needed.”

When asked what the administration is doing to drive down demand, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs on Thursday mentioned increased spending for treatment and prevention, as well as the inspection of railroad cars at the border.

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