FILE - Marijuana activists use a sign to call on President Barack Obama to make the drug legal.
FILE - Marijuana activists use a sign to call on President Barack Obama to make the drug legal.

President Barack Obama says he thinks marijuana should be treated just like alcohol and tobacco, but he won't push the issue in his final days as president.

Obama, in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine published Tuesday, said he doesn't think legalizing marijuana will put an end to the drug war in America, but regulation on a national scale is a better option than continuing to have state laws be at odds with federal laws.

"It is untenable over the long term for the Justice Department or the [Drug Enforcement Agency] to be enforcing a patchwork of laws, where something that's legal in one state could get you a 20-year prison sentence in another," he said.

Recreational use of marijuana is now legal in eight states and Washington, D.C. Medicinal marijuana use is legal in 26 states and the district, and several large cities have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Pedestrians pass by a DC Cannabis Campaign sign in
FILE - Pedestrians pass by a D.C. Cannabis Campaign sign in Washington, Nov. 4, 2014.

In addition to these states where marijuana is already legal in some form, California, Massachusetts and Nevada voted November 8 to approve recreational marijuana initiatives, while several other states voted to pass medical marijuana provisions. The states are now in the process of working out their regulatory framework.

Momentum building

Obama likened the momentum building around marijuana legalization to the drive to recognize gay marriage before its legalization earlier in his presidency — support built first at the state level before transferring to the national stage. The president said he thinks it's important to lay the groundwork before taking a firm stance.

"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," Obama said in a 2014 interview.

"So this is a debate that is now ripe," he told Rolling Stone, "much in the same way that we ended up making progress on same-sex marriage. There's something to this whole states-being-laboratories-of-democracy and an evolutionary approach. You now have about a fifth of the country where this is legal."

The most recent polling shows support for marijuana legalization at an all-time high. According to a September poll published by Pew Research, 57 percent of Americans believe marijuana should be made legal compared to 37 percent who think it should stay illegal.

Colorado pot harvest.
FILE - Farmworkers remove stems and leaves from newly-harvested marijuana plants at Los Suenos Farms, America's largest legal open-air marijuana farm, in Avondale, Colorado, Oct. 4, 2016.

This shows a sharp contrast compared to 10 years ago, when the polling showed almost the exact opposite — 32 percent in favor of legalization compared to 60 percent opposed.

Marijuana classification

Marijuana is currently listed by the DEA as a Schedule 1 drug — the same level as heroin and LSD. According to DEA guidelines, a Schedule 1 drug has no accepted medical value and has a high potential for abuse.

Obama has been a tepid critic of the marijuana classification in the past. In a 2014 interview with The New Yorker, he said he thinks marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol "in terms of its impact on the individual consumer."

In a more recent interview with Bill Maher, Obama said "America needs to have a more serious conversation about how we're treating marijuana and our drug laws generally."

According to the president, the political climate isn't right for him to take a stand in favor of legalization. However, as a private citizen, he says he will have more latitude "to describe where I think we need to go."

"Typically, how these classifications are changed are not done by presidential edict, but are done either legislatively or through the DEA," Obama said. "As you might imagine, the DEA, whose job it is historically to enforce drug laws, is not always going to be on the cutting edge about these issues."