WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork/AP) – President Barack Obama has gone on the record about legalizing marijuana.
In a magazine interview, the president said he doesn’t think marijuana is more dangerous than alcohol, “in terms of its impact on the individual consumer.”
“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,” the president said an interview with The New Yorker.
Smoking marijuana is “not something I encourage, and I’ve told my daughters I think it’s a bad idea, a waste of time, not very healthy,” Obama said.
Obama’s administration has given states permission to experiment with marijuana regulation, and newly passed laws in Colorado and Washington legalizing marijuana recently went into effect. The president said it was important for the legalization of marijuana to go forward in those states to avoid a situation in which only a few are punished while a large portion of people have broken the law at one time or another.
The president said he is troubled at the disproportionate number of arrests and imprisonments of minorities for marijuana use. “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.”
He said in the interview that users shouldn’t be locked up for long stretches of time when people writing drug laws “have probably done the same thing.”
But Obama urged a cautious approach to changing marijuana laws, saying that people who think legalizing pot will solve social problems are “probably overstating the case.”
“And the experiment that’s going to be taking place in Colorado and Washington is going to be, I think, a challenge,” the president said.
Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance praised Obama’s words, saying his use of the word “important” about the new Colorado and Washington laws “really puts the wind in the sails of the movement to end marijuana prohibition.
Critics of the new laws raise concerns about public health and law enforcement, asking whether wide availability of the drug will lead to more underage drug use, more cases of driving while high and more crime.
“Saying that marijuana is not as harmful as alcohol is like that rattlesnakes are not as harmful as cobras,” said Dr. Jeff Reynolds, who leads Long Island’s Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.
“We’ve got a public health challenge on our hands, and the president just made our jobs a lot harder.”
A recent Gallup poll found for the first time ever a majority of people think the drug should be legalized altogether.
On Long Island, the reaction to Obama’s remarks drew mixed reviews.
“I don’t approve of the message that would be sending to the younger people in our society,” Amanda Olcott, of Garden City, told CBS 2’s Jennifer McLogan.
“I feel like marijuana is a natural thing,” said Matt Vincelli, of Garden City. “It does grow from the earth. It’s not like it’s methamphetamine or something.”
Some complained about the nation’s inconsistency, with one state sending a joint smoker to prison and another declaring pot legal.
“Our country’s in a hypocritical state,” said Aron Cohen, of Great Neck. “We’re sending so many mixed signals to our citizens, to kids.”
Pastor Rassan Hoskins agrees with Obama that current anti-drug laws disproportionately punish the poor in black and Latino communities.
“Pot in and of itself, I don’t think that it rises to the level of illegality,” he said. “While I’m a minister, so I don’t think there necessarily has to be a need to get high at all.”
Meanwhile, children McLogan spoke with said their parents, like Obama, are urging them not to smoke marijuana.
“You should only do it if it’s a medicinal purpose,” said
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced his support for medical marijuana in his State of the State address earlier this month.
The plan would allow 20 hospitals to dispense marijuana to people suffering from cancer and some other diseases under state Department of Health regulations.
Cuomo’s medical marijuana plan will be enacted by executive order, not legislation, and will be more restrictive than programs in some other states like California.
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