The White House insisted Wednesday that its position on marijuana policy "has not changed," after the president was quoted in a magazine story saying he does not think the drug "is more dangerous than alcohol."
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the president was talking "about the disparities in the prosecution of our drug laws," and that "when it comes to marijuana use, he made clear he sees it as a bad habit and a vice."
In the story, Obama said it was “important” the legalization of the drug in some states “go forward” because it would prevent unfair penalties for some users.
He also said he saw pot as less dangerous “in terms of its impact on the individual consumer," and equated it to smoking cigarettes.
Those comments seemed to contradict the National Drug Control Policy's official stance on the drug, which says marijuana can cause permanent brain damage and carries more carcinogens than tobacco smoke.
But Carney said Obama only meant to convey his concern over disproportionate arrests of and sentences for minorities possessing the drug.
"There's no question that we've applied our drug laws in a way that has been counterproductive," Carney said.
In the story, Obama said he believed it was unfair 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.”
In September, Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department would work with states like Washington and Colorado that have legalized marijuana to implement decriminalization, even though federal law continues to prohibit possession or use of the drug.
A Department of Justice memo said 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 in early sales.