Legalize pot? Not a change Obama can believe in

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Legalizing marijuana is not the kind of change President Barack Obama can believe in -- -- at least not as a remedy for the ailing U.S. economy.

U.S. President Barack Obama listens to a question from the audience during a town hall meeting in the East Room of the White House in Washington, March 26, 2009. REUTERS/Jim Young

On Thursday, Obama tackled the issue head-on, only half-jokingly, at an online townhall meeting where he noted that the idea was a favorite among the 3.6 million people who voted on more than 100,000 questions submitted on the White House website.

“I have to say that there was one question that was voted on that ranked fairly high, and that was whether legalizing marijuana would improve the economy and job creation,” he said to laughter at the White House event.

“And I don’t know what this says about the online audience,” Obama said, tongue-in-cheek. “This was a fairly popular question. We want to make sure that it was answered.”

“The answer is, no, I don’t think that is a good strategy to grow our economy,” he said before moving back to a more sober discussion of unemployment and healthcare reform.

“Thank you for clearing that up,” said Jared Bernstein, Vice President Joe Biden’s chief economist, who was acting as moderator.

Many of the questioners suggested that regulating the marijuana industry could yield large tax revenues.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was later asked whether Obama, who admitted in his autobiography to experimenting with drugs in his youth, was leaving some wiggle room on the issue.

“The president opposes the legalization of marijuana,” Gibbs told reporters, emphasizing his seriousness. “He doesn’t think that’s the right plan for America.”

As for where the new administration stood on medical marijuana, he said to ask the Justice Department.

Gibbs suggested that marijuana advocates may have had a hand in stacking the deck by mobilizing supporters to send in questions and to go online and vote repeatedly for them.

Writing by Matt Spetalnick