As the marijuana legalisation debate rages in the US, President Barack Obama has said he thinks cannabis use is “not very different from cigarettes” and no more dangerous than alcohol.
Speaking in an interview with the New Yorker editor David Remnick, Mr Obama said that while “it’s not something I encourage”, those who are caught using marijuana should not be given prison sentences.
While the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in the US still classes marijuana as a “Schedule One” substance on a par with heroin or ecstasy, it has now been legalised for recreational use in two states, Colorado and Washington.
Mr Obama told the weekly magazine: “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.”
When pressed on whether he felt marijuana was less harmful than alcohol, the President said he agreed it was less damaging “in terms of its impact on the individual customer”.
The Justice Department has previously said it will focus more on catching and prosecuting those supplying the drug than on individual users, which Mr Obama said was a better Government focus than trying to change marijuana’s legal status.
“We should not be 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,” he said.
The president praised Colorado and Washington’s laws, saying it is “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”.
But he said they also raised concerns that legalisation could be pushed too far. “If marijuana is fully legalised and at some point folks say, ‘Well, we can come up with a negotiated dose of cocaine that we can show is not any more harmful than vodka’, are we open to that?” Mr Obama said. “If somebody says, ‘We’ve got a finely calibrated dose of meth, it isn’t going to kill you or rot your teeth’, are we OK with that?”
Mr Obama’s comments came after New York announced it would join 20 other states, and Washington DC, in permitting the sale, possession and use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.