Skip to main content

Obama: Marijuana Less Dangerous Than Alcohol, But...

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #818)
Consequences of Prohibition
Politics & Advocacy

In an interview with The New Yorker released Sunday, President Barack Obama said he didn't think marijuana was more dangerous than alcohol and that the legalization experiments going on in Colorado and Washington were "important." But he also said marijuana use wasn't something he could encourage and he worried that pot legalization could lead to a slippery slope where the decriminalization or legalization of other, more dangerous, drugs might be considered.

President Barack Obama (
The comments came as interviewer David Remnick prodded Obama on the issue of marijuana policy in the midst of a whopping 15,000-word profile of the president. Remnick described Obama's position on pot as an area of shifting public opinion where "he seemed even less eager to evolve with any dispatch and get in front of the issue."

"As has been well documented," Obama said in response to a Remnick question, "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."

But is it less dangerous, Remnick asked?

It is "in terms of its impact on the individual consumer," Obama conceded. "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."

Perhaps marijuana smoking is a bad habit, but racially biased marijuana law enforcement is bad policy, Obama said.

"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."

And thus, the administration's hands-off policy toward marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington:

"It's important for it to go forward 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."

But then, the professorial president argued the other side of the issue.

"Having said all that, those who argue that legalizing marijuana is a panacea and it solves all these social problems I think are probably overstating the case. There is a lot of hair on that policy. And the experiment that's going to be taking place in Colorado and Washington is going to be, I think, a challenge."

Legalizing marijuana could open the door to talk about legalizing other drugs, he cautioned.

"I also think that, when it comes to harder drugs, the harm done to the user is profound and the social costs are profound. And you do start getting into some difficult line-drawing issues. If marijuana is fully legalized 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? 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?"

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Mark Mitcham (not verified)

Those statements strike me as progressive for a sitting president. Harm reduction is relatively easy to sell with respect to marijuana, because of its indisputable safety record. But president Obama brings up the full legalization of all drugs, which scares some people. Okay, lots of people. Still, it's the right question. Clever, as usual. Now time to make it happen. We must do it in other states. Don't move to CO, change the laws in your state! Woo-hooo!
Sun, 01/19/2014 - 5:44pm Permalink
saynotohypocrisy (not verified)

Well yeah, hell yeah, but even more importantly, alcohol is more dangerous because of the death and devastation it brings to innocent victims, and the gap between weed and booze in doing that is even bigger than the gap in how they affect the user. So he's still got one big step to go on alcohol vs. weed.

This should only intensify the questioning of why he won't reschedule marijuana. He's being harder and more backwards on MMJ than on recreational weed now. He responds to pressure, it's time to start pouring it on regarding MMJ. High CBD, low THC cannabis is one particularly ripe avenue for attack, but it's not the whole answer by itself.

Sun, 01/19/2014 - 6:31pm Permalink
TrebleBass (not verified)

'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? 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?"

is it okay in the sense that it should be legal to use those doses of those drugs? yes, it's okay. I think the level of concern that is being taken to regulate cannabis in colorado and washington right now, where they have all these rules and it's all very tightly controlled, so on and so forth is the appropriate level of concern that we should have when first legalizing hard drugs like cocaine, meth and heroin, which is something we should do. being this freaked out about regulating cannabis is not necessary, but i understand that it has to be this way for now until society slowly learns to relax about it being legal. 


at the end of the day the most important concept in all of this is harm reduction. the best single idea for regulation in my opinion is the pairing of drugs with their antidotes (if they exist). when selling an opiate or opioid, make sure the person also gets naloxone.[another necessary regulation for opiates is the constant reminder to the user not to mix with alcohol or other downers, and probably even not selling to people with alcohol in their system]. when selling cocaine, make sure the person gets the antidote for cocaine (they're experimenting with one, there's a news story from 2012, but i had heard of another one before that. i don't know if the 2012 one is the same as the one i'd read about before a few years ago. these are both different from the vaccine. im not talking about a vaccine. im against the use of a vaccine without consent. im talking about reversing the effects of the drug without vaccinating the person for the effects of the drug long term. unfortunately, the people developing these drugs don't appear to share my moral dissaproval of the use of vaccines. hopefully, they will develop a drug that can reverse the effects without vaccinating people). 

anyway, i think the best way for a user to help appreciate the value and benefit of not using a drug is to have experience with the antidote for that drug. when being, for example, too anxious or paranoid or hyperventilating on too much cocaine (or, of course, overdosing seriously), and then taking the antidote, they will learn to appreciate the benefit of the reduction of the effects of the cocaine (or opiate or whatever it may be. i don't think there's one for meth, but maybe it could be found), which is basically the same thing as appreciating the benefit of not having taken the drug in the first place. to have two stashes, or two sides of your stash, one that is your drug and one that is your antidote, and to use them together. you take a little too much of the drug you say "let me make it a little less, im too high right now", and you take a little of the antidote, and then maybe later you take a little more of the drug and then maybe later you take a little of the antidote again. it becomes the yin and yang of your recreational drug experience. you get used to the idea that you don't just take your drug, you take a certain amount, and you value being at a certain level, not higher than that. that way you will also have this sense of the pleasure and/or peace or whatever benefit there is in not taking the drug in the first place. i think people then will either be encouraged after some time not take it at all anymore, or they will probably do less of it, or at the very least manage it better so that it doesn't hurt their functionality as much or puts them in danger of overdoses. I think people instinctively will be as well as they can, they just want to be able to have fun (or whatever benefit they get from their drug). I think people, if left to their own devices but given the tools to best manage their own use, will take care of themselves well. plus, it's their right to manage their own use.

    Sun, 01/19/2014 - 8:02pm Permalink
    BigBrotherIsWatching (not verified)

    In reply to by TrebleBass (not verified)

    This is one of the most intelligent statements I have read in a long time!  To bad people can't get their heads out of their asses to realize that this is a viable solution to a common problem....

    Thu, 01/23/2014 - 12:51pm Permalink
    Mark Mitcham (not verified)

    In reply to by saynotohypocrisy (not verified)

    I'm sure he knows about vaporizors, the reference to his advice to his daughters is the giveaway that he knows more than he's letting on, he is couching his support for marijuana regulation in terms that frightened parents can hear without panic. Remember, still hella lotta Americans scared of weed.
    Sun, 01/19/2014 - 10:30pm Permalink
    Jules (not verified)

    In reply to by Mark Mitcham (not verified)

    If only there was a parent in a position of power and authority that every American could look up to. One who consumed marijuana in his youth and then quit in order to pursue other interests in his life. A parent who could inform other parents that they shouldn't fear the drug but it's availability to children and it's control by criminals. A parent who is living proof of these claims. A parent who could quell the fears of other parents, fears that have grown through their ignorance of the facts and out of love for their children. A parent who could show other parents that their greatest fears are based out of love but also misinformation and that if they truly wish to keep their children safe they should support some sort of scheme that would regulate whether or not children could easily procure the drug. A Scheme of regulation that could be used to raise capital to uplift their children with social services and help those children who have become lost due to these regulations not existing earlier. A parent who cared about more then just his children and did what he knew was right even in the face of adversity and opposition.

    Well, I guess such a parent doesn't exist in this country so we'll have to settle for the coward interviewed in this article.

    Mon, 01/20/2014 - 4:25pm Permalink
    KeLeMi (not verified)

    Why would legalizing other drugs be bad, Mr. Obama? Substance abuse, whether it be alcohol or LSD should be treated as a health and not a legal problem.

    Mon, 01/20/2014 - 7:20am Permalink
    Paulpot (not verified)

    Beware the tyrants who warns of the slippery slope. 

    What is this slippery slope? 

    Legalization in Colorado, Washington and Uruguay did not just happen. 

    Before that there was 20+ yrs of decriminalization and medical marijuana in the US and around the world. 

    This happened as the result of a lot of hard work. Activists lobbied, reporters reported, families argued, it was discussed in the bedroom, in the boardroom and in the bar room. Everybody talked this out till they were blue in the face and there was nothing left to be said and then they voted. 

    This is called the democratic process by many but for some it is the slippery slope. 

    Those who would have you believe that democracy is some kind of slimy, slippery slide would rather you did not take part in the political process and left the workings of democracy to them. 

    In other words, stay off my turf. I'm in charge, not you. 

    People who warn of the slippery slope are tyrants. 

    Turn your back on slippery slopers, they're out to rob you of your rights.

    Mon, 01/20/2014 - 11:18am Permalink
    Joe User (not verified)

    Not the gateway drug argument again. Cocaine, Vodka, and Meth can all cause death from overdose. No difficult line-drawing issues here.


    And you do start getting into some difficult line-drawing issues. If marijuana is fully legalized 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? 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?"


    Mon, 01/20/2014 - 5:48pm Permalink
    William Aiken (not verified)

    President Obama makes some sensible sound bites in this interview which are helpful to furthering the debate. Yet, his policies of bringing back the JAG grants and going full throttle after the marijuana dispensaries in CA are proof that he has been worse than Bush on pot issues. He walks a careful line to appease both reformers and prohibitionists. He has been able to pull off this canard due to a media which avoids asking the tough questions and is too lazy to research his dismal record on drug policy that has harmed thousands of people. 

    Mon, 01/20/2014 - 7:56pm Permalink
    Yourenotthe Ns… (not verified)

    In reply to by William Aiken (not verified)

    I think saying that he has gone full throttle in prosecuting marijuana dispensaries in CA is a bit sensationalistic. The justice department did continue the policy of the justice dept when it was under Bush and did prosecute some dispensaries, true. I also would've liked to have seen Obama change this as soon as he came into office. But it wasn't more or less aggressive than during the Bush presidency. AND...under Obama's direction, the justice dept has released new guidines and policy regarding this. Within the last year, AG Eric Holder announced that they will respect the rights of states who have or will legalize/decriminalize marijuana and they will not pursue prosecutions against people operating within those states legal framework regarding legalized pot, as long as the states have and can prove they've established a strong legal framework and are enforcing common sense laws such as relates to things such as underage smoking, impaired driving, etc.
    Wed, 01/22/2014 - 8:40am Permalink
    Uncle Bob (not verified)

    It's pleasing that Obama is opening up about the issue.  I may not like everything he's saying, but this beats his unrelenting silence on the issue.  You'd think marijuana didn't exist at all if you based all your ideas on marijuana policy just on the President's statements.. now he's being a little more open.  Good on him.

    I also am surprised this interview has only been heard of from our pals at stopthedrugwar I was expecting a little more exposure to this.  With the help of Google there are other media outlets reporting it, but it should at least get major mention on certain front pages I would hope

    Mon, 01/20/2014 - 8:33pm Permalink
    Dan Simonds (not verified)

    In reply to by Uncle Bob (not verified)

    This interview was talked about on many news networks around the country. I saw it on CNN first and then on our local news stations. I read it in a few news papers as well.

    Wed, 01/22/2014 - 6:16pm Permalink
    sicntired (not verified)

    This from a heavy ganja user who slid all the way into the Presidency of the USA?What kind of message is that?Obama would do us all a big favor if he just stopped talking about this subject,altogether.Every time he does he is hypocritical and usually does exactly the opposite in policy.Enough is too much.

    Mon, 01/20/2014 - 11:38pm Permalink
    Denis the tec (not verified)

    how can you compare cannabis .to meth and cocaine .marijuana dos not rot your teeth or have any phsical harmful afect so shit or get off the pot.





    Tue, 01/21/2014 - 1:11am Permalink
    kathleen chippi (not verified)

    5 years in and Obama has prosecuted 4 times the number of medical
    marijuana caregivers and patients acting as dispensary owners as bush
    jr. and now he's the one throwing around the word hypocrite? Obama
    continues to be one of those LEADING hypocrites until he signs some
    MANDATORY EXECUTIVE ORDERS to correct his cannabis hypocrisy :

    1. REMOVE CANNABIS (THC and ALL cannabaniods) from schedule!
    4. STOP EXCLUDING PEOPLE from receiving lifesaving organs from the ORGAN DONATION PROGRAM.

    Until these transgressions on the American people are corrected--Obama is still a HYPOCRITE to be SHAMED!

    Tue, 01/21/2014 - 7:32am Permalink
    Stev Bach (not verified)

    One of the biggest problems of Prohibition is that it not prevents the usage of any drug, but only increases the risks for users.
    In my opinion, cannabis is relatively harmless and can be legalized without further notice.
    Methamphetamine has pharmaceutical benefits (ADHD, Chronic fatigue) and should be regulated by prescription.
    As for cocaine, it would make sense to legalize the use of Coca (as tea or traditional Coca chew) and Cocaine should be also regulated by presription.
    Opiates are clearly medical agents (analgesic) and should also regulated by prescription.
    The same is with LSD-25, Psilocybin and MDMA (LSD & Psilocybin-Assisted Therapy for Anxiety, MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy in the Treatment of PTSD).
    In itself, it is wrong to deny people the medication, which would help them.


    PS: If a person gets addicted to any kind of drug (such thing can happen), then this person simply needs help in form of a therapy.

    Tue, 01/21/2014 - 8:58am Permalink
    the virgin terry (not verified)

    obama: 'Legalizing marijuana could open the door to talk about legalizing other drugs'

    i see. first marijuana was defamed as a 'gateway drug' leading to 'harder drugs'. now it's legalization is being defamed as a gateway to legalization of 'harder drugs'.  (sigh)

    drug warriors: can't live with 'em, can't get rid of them.

    what's needed is a war on dogmas. without dogmatic intransigence, there can be no 'war on drugs'. there is no rationale for it, no science behind it. only dogmatic intransigence. dogged ignorance, bigotry, and corruption.

    Thu, 01/23/2014 - 10:13pm Permalink

    Add new comment

    The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
    This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.