Obama: Pot 'not very different' to cigs

Last updated 14:28 20/01/2014
Reuters

The world's first state-licensed marijuana retailers legally permitted to sell pot for recreational use to the general public open for business. Jillian Kitchener reports.

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US President Barack Obama says smoking marijuana is a "bad habit" but no worse than alcohol and that states legalising weed should go ahead with their plans.

"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 magazine.

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 laws recently passed in Colorado and Washington state legalising marijuana recently went into effect. The president said it was important for the legalisation 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".

Asked whether he thought marijuana was less dangerous than alcohol, the president said yes "in terms of its impact on the individual consumer".

But Obama urged a cautious approach to changing marijuana laws, saying that people who think legalising 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 New York City-based 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.

SYRIA AND IRAN

In the lengthy profile, the president muses over race, the Middle East, and criticism of his efforts to woo Congress, among other topics. Discussing race, he said that he believes some people will never accept having a black president.

The president said that the three sets of negotiations involving Iran, Israel and the Palestinians, and Syria each have less than a 50-50 chance of succeeding, but are necessary steps toward achieving stability in a volatile region.

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"If we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion ... you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran in which there's competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare,'' he said.

On the question of Syria's brutal civil war, Obama said he is "haunted by what's happened" there. But, he added, "it is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which our involvement in Syria would have led to a better outcome, short of us being willing to undertake an effort in size and scope similar to what we did in Iraq." 

Regarding whether Obama will write a memoir, former adviser David Axelrod called it a ''slam dunk'' that the president will. A literary agent estimated publishers will pay between US$17 million and US$20m (NZ$20m to NZ$24m) for one.

Obama also said he does not regard the leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden as comparable to the Pentagon Papers or other leaks vindicated by history.

Remnick writes: "The leaks, he said, had 'put people at risk' but revealed nothing illegal. And though the leaks raised 'legitimate policy questions' about NSA operations, 'the issue then is: Is the only way to do that by giving some twenty-nine-year-old free rein to basically dump a mountain of information' " on the media?

With exactly three years left in his presidency, Obama said narrowing the gap between rich and poor would be a key part of his legacy.

''I will measure myself at the end of my presidency in large part by whether I began the process of rebuilding the middle class and the ladders into the middle class and reversing the trend toward economic bifurcation in this society,'' he said.

- Agencies

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