Thursday, January 31, 2008

DEVELOPING STORY: For the latest version of this developing story, read tomorrow’s editions of The Washington Times or click here.
Last fall during a nationally televised presidential debate, Sen. Barack Obama hesitantly raised his hand and joined with most of his Democratic rivals to declare that he opposed decriminalizing marijuana. (Play video below.)

But as a candidate for the U.S. Senate four years ago, Mr. Obama told Illinois college students that he supported eliminating criminal penalties for marijuana use or possession, according to a videotape of a little noticed debate that was obtained by The Washington Times.

“I think we need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws,” Mr. Obama told an audience during a debate at Northwestern University in 2004. “But I’m not somebody who believes in legalization of marijuana.” (Play video below.)

Asked about the two different answers, Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign said he in fact has “always” supported decriminalizing marijuana as he answered in 2004, meaning the candidate mistakenly raised his hand during the presidential debate last fall.

That position leaves Mr. Obama as the lone presidential candidate among the four leading challengers in either party who supports eliminating criminal penalties for marijuana. Mr. Obama’s chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Hillary Clinton, opposes decriminalization, Clinton campaign spokesman Phil Singer said.

Also on the site today:

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  • Obama donates $70,000 from fraud suspect

  • Hillary celebrates in Fla.

  • Obama wins big in S. Carolina

    On the Republican side, Kevin Madden, spokesman for Mitt Romney, said the former Massachusetts governor is “not in favor of legalization of marijuana, and that includes medical purposes.”

    The campaign for Arizona Sen. John McCain did not respond immediately to questions. But the Marijuana Policy Project, which advocates decriminalization, says both Republicans have told its supporters they oppose that move, including in medical cases.

    When asked by The Times about decriminalizing marijuana, the Obama campaign reiterated the candidate’s opposition to legalization. “Senator Obama does not believe in legalization of marijuana, but agrees with President Bush that long minimum sentences for first-time drug users may not be the best way to occupy jail space or heal people from their disease,” Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor said.

    The campaign went on to say that, as president, Mr. Obama “will review drug sentences to see where we can be smarter on crime and reduce the blind and counterproductive sentencing of non-violent offenders, and revisit instances where drug rehabilitation may be more appropriate.” His campaign later stated that Mr. Obama “always” has supported decriminalizing marijuana.

    Mr. Obama’s differing answers on marijuana are among a half-dozen conflicts between positions he took while running for Senate in 2004 and those he now articulates while running for president, a review of debate tapes shows. Other conflicts range from ending the embargo against Cuba to providing health care for illegal immigrants.

    The Times obtained video footage of the public debates from a variety of sources, ranging from open sources such as YouTube to political operatives who oppose Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign or his Senate bid four years ago in Illinois. Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, for instance, recently released footage on its Web site of a 2004 speech in which Mr. Obama spoke about universal health care.

    Check back for a full report on Mr. Obama’s conflicting positions in tomorrow’s editions of the newspaper.

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