Obama: Marijuana a 'bad habit and a vice,' no more dangerous than alcohol

President Obama said in an interview published Sunday he does not believe marijuana is more dangerous than alcohol and that it was “important” that the legalization of the drug in some states to “go forward” because it would prevent unfair penalties for some users.

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"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. I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol,” Obama said in an interview with The New Yorker.

Pressed on whether marijuana was less dangerous than alcohol, Obama noted that it’s “not something I encourage, and I’ve told my daughters I think it’s a bad idea, a waste of time, not very healthy.”

But, Obama said, he did see pot as less dangerous “in terms of its impact on the individual consumer.”

Obama said he was particularly concerned by disproportionate arrests of and sentences for minorities possessing the drug.

“Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do,” he said. “And African-American kids and Latino kids are more likely to be poor and less likely to have the resources and the support to avoid unduly harsh penalties.”

The president said he believed it was unfair that the government was “locking up kids or individual users for long stretches of jail time when some of the folks who are writing those laws have probably done the same thing.”

That’s why, Obama said, he was generally supportive of experiments in Washington and Colorado to legalize the drug.

“It’s important for it to go forward because it’s important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished.”

Last September, Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department would work with the states to implement the law, even though federal law continues to prohibit possession or use of the drug.

A Department of Justice memo said that the federal government would still prosecute those who distribute the drug to minors, buy from criminal enterprises, move marijuana to states where it is illegal, or drive drugged.

Legal pot went on sale for the first time at the beginning of the month in Colorado, raking in millions of dollars in early sales.

“The first step to improving our nation’s marijuana policy is admitting that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol,” said Mason Tvert, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, a group working to replace legislation prohibiting marijuana. “Now that [Obama] has recognized that laws jailing adults for using marijuana are inappropriate, it is time to amend for those errors and adopt a more fact-based marijuana policy.”

“It is time to replace our antiquated marijuana prohibition laws with a more evidence-based approach,” Tvert added. “Our laws should be based on the facts, and it’s a fact that marijuana is much safer than alcohol.”

--This post was updated at 4:23 p.m.