President Obama says marijuana use is no more dangerous than alcohol, though he regards it as a bad habit he hopes his children will avoid.
"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,'' he said in a magazine interview. "I don't think it is more dangerous than alcohol."
He said marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol "in terms of its impact on the individual consumer.''
"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," he said.
Obama made his remarks in a series of interviews with The New Yorker, which published a story about the conversations in its Jan. 27 issue and on its website.
Marijuana remains illegal to possess or sell under federal law, although Colorado and Washington have adopted state laws making it legal to possess and use small amounts. A number of states have decriminalized the weed and authorized it for medical uses.
Obama said he was troubled by the disproportionate arrests and imprisonment of minorities on marijuana charges.
"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.
"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.
He said legalizations of marijuana in Colorado and Washington are important experiments "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."
At the same time, Obama said legalization is no panacea for social problems and the experiment with legalization in those two states "is going to be, I think, a challenge.''
Mason Tvert, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project in Denver, which advocates for legalization, said Obama's remarks underscore the need for reconsidering federal and state marijuana prohibitions.
"The first step to improving our nation's marijuana policy is admitting that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol. Now that he 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,'' Tvert said.
"Every objective study on marijuana has concluded that it is far less harmful than alcohol to the consumer and to society. Marijuana is less toxic and less addictive than alcohol, and it does not contribute to violent and aggressive behavior like alcohol does,'' he added. "Our laws should be based on the facts, and it's a fact that marijuana is much safer than alcohol."
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, hailed the president's comments and said his description of the Colorado and Washington moves as important "really puts the wind in the sails of the movement to end marijuana prohibition.''
USA TODAY 7:32 p.m. EST January 19, 2014