Shortly after President Barack Obama's comments that marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol, his deputy drug czar has reluctantly agreed.
During a House Oversight Committee hearing Tuesday, Michael Botticelli, deputy director of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, was grilled about the harms of marijuana and mixed signals about the drug coming out of the Obama administration.
Botticelli's office considers marijuana dangerous and harmful, and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration considers it illegal.
"The administration continues to oppose attempts legalize marijuana and other drugs," Botticelli said during the hearing.
But Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., challenged the drug czar's second-in-command.
“How many people die from marijuana overdoses every year?” Connolly asked Botticelli.
“I don’t know that I know," Botticelli replied. "It is very rare."
“Very rare. Now just contrast that with prescription drugs, unintentional deaths from prescription drugs; one American dies every 19 minutes,” Connolly said. “Nothing comparable to marijuana. Is that correct?"
“Hundreds of thousands of people die every year from alcohol related deaths. Automobile, liver disease, esophageal cancer, blood poisoning,” Connolly continued. "Is it not a scientific fact that there is nothing comparable with marijuana? I’m not saying it is good or bad, but when we look at deaths and illnesses, alcohol, other hard drugs are certainly — even prescription drugs — are a threat to public health in a way that just isolated marijuana is not. Isn’t that a scientific fact? Or do you dispute that fact?”
“I don’t dispute that fact,” Botticelli said.
In an interview with the New Yorker magazine published last month, President Obama said that he views marijuana as a "bad habit" and "a vice" but no more dangerous than alcohol.
“As has been well documented, I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life," Obama said. "I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.”
The president also said marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol “in terms of its impact on the individual consumer."
Those comments, coupled with the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington, have emboldened marijuana advocates and stirred similar efforts in other states.
Meanwhile, dozens of petitions related to marijuana legalization have been cropping up on online petition sites. One is urging the NFL to stop punishing players for marijuana use. Another wants Obama to remove pot from the Drug Enforcement Agency's list of top-tier illegal drugs.
"President Obama, if marijuana is safer than alcohol," the petition reads, "remove it from the DEA's schedule of drugs."
However, that doesn't seem likely, at least in the short term.
James Capra, chief of operations for the DEA, told a Senate panel last month that "going down the path to legalization in this country is reckless and irresponsible.
"I'm talking about the long-term impact of legalization in the United States," Capra continued. "It scares us. The treatment people are afraid, the education people are afraid. Law enforcement is worried what is going to happen. In every part of the world where this experiment has been tried, it has failed, time and time again."