Obama: It's 'untenable' for government to enforce 'a patchwork of laws' on marijuana

Barack Obama called for re-thinking the federal government's stance on marijuana, and said that the drug should be treated as a "public health" issue, in a recent interview with The Rolling Stone.

"It is untenable over the long term for the Justice Department or the DEA 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," Obama told The Rolling Stone's Jann Wenner.

51 PHOTOS
Marijuana legalization laws by state
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Marijuana legalization laws by state

Alabama: Medical use only, otherwise possession is a felony

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Alaska: Marijuana legalized for medical and recreational use 

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Arizona: Marijuana legalized for medical use

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Arkansas: Medical use only

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California: Legal for medical and recreational use

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Colorado: Legal for medical and recreational use  

(REUTERS/Rick Wilking)

Connecticut: Decriminalized and legalized for medical use 

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Delaware: Decriminalized

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Florida: Medical use only

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Georgia: Medical use only

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Hawaii: Medical use only

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Idaho: Not legal

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Illinois: Decriminalized

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Indiana: Not legal

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Iowa: Medical use only

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Kansas: Not legal

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Kentucky: Not legal

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Louisiana: Medical use only

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Maine: Legal for medical and recreational use

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Maryland: Decriminalized

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Massachusetts: Legal

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Michigan: Medical use only

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Minnesota: Decriminalized

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Mississippi: Decriminalized on first offense

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Missouri: Not legal

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Montana: Medical use only

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Nebraska: Decriminalized on first offense only

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Nevada: Legal

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New Hampshire: Medical use only

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New Jersey: Medical use only

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New Mexico: Medical use only

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New York: Decriminalized unless in public view

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North Carolina: Decriminalized

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North Dakota: Medical use only

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Ohio: Decriminalized

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Oklahoma: Medical use only

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Oregon: Legal for medical and recreational use

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Pennsylvania: Medical use only

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Rhode Island: Decriminalized

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South Carolina: Not legal

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South Dakota: Not legal

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Tennessee: Medical use only

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Texas: Medical use only, decriminalized in Houston and Dallas

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Utah: Not legal 

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Vermont: Decriminalized

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Virginia: Not legal

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Washington: Legal for medical and recreational use

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West Virginia: Medical use only

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Wisconsin: Medical use only

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Wyoming: Not legal 

(Photo: Space Images via Getty Images)

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Obama said that while he doesn't believe that legalization is a "panacea," he thinks that marijuana should be treated as a public health issue similar to cigarettes and alcohol.

There's already a thriving commercial market for marijuana in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, and seven more states, including California, voted to legalize marijuana in various forms on November 8.

At the federal level, however, marijuana is still classified as a Schedule I drug, meaning that it has no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.

Obama stressed that whatever his position, de-scheduling marijuana is not something he can do by "presidential edict."

"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."

The DEA passed up the opportunity to re-schedule marijuana in August, after they were forced to respond to a widely-circulated petition.

36 PHOTOS
President Obama's 35 most memorable moments
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President Obama's 35 most memorable moments

Barack Obama is sworn in by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. to become the nation's first African American president. Wife Michelle and daughters Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, look on.

(Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)

In this handout from the The White House, U.S. President Barack Obama bends over so the son of a White House staff member can pat his head during a visit to the Oval Office May 8, 2009 in Washington, DC.

(Photo by Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images)

President Barack Obama (R) and first lady Michelle Obama (L) imitate monsters as they read 'Where the wild things are' during the White House Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn of the White House March 28, 2016 in Washington, DC. The tradition dates back to 1878 when President Rutherford B. Hayes allowed children to roll eggs on the South Lawn.

(Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama waves as he arrives at Jose Marti International Airport on Air Force One for a 48-hour visit on March 20, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Mr. Obama's visit is the first in nearly 90 years for a sitting president, the last one being Calvin Coolidge.

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the Ford Michigan Assembly Plant January 7, 2015 in Wayne, Michigan. Obama spoke about the American automotive and manufacturing sector during his visit to the Detroit area, the first stop of a scheduled three-day, three city tour inthe lead up to the State of the Union.

(Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

In this handout provide by the White House, U.S. President Barack Obama (L) receives a fist-bump from a U.S. soldier as he greets hundreds of U.S. troops during his visit to Camp Victory on April 7, 2009 in Baghdad, Iraq. Obama is serving as the 44th President of the U.S. and the first African-American to be elected to the office of President in the history of the United States.

(Photo by Pete Souza/White House via Getty Images)

Democratic presidential nominee U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) cries while speaking about his grandmother during a rally at University of North Carolina on November 3, 2008 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Madelyn Dunham, grandmother of Obama, died today of cancer at age 86. Obama continues to campaigns on the eve of Election day with the polls still showing him leading in the race against the Republican presidential nominee U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama arrive to board Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on April 18, 2013. Obama heads to Boston to mourn victims of the deadly marathon attacks, as investigators study images of a suspect who may have planted the bombs. No arrests have been made in connection with Monday's twin bombings near the finish line of the race, which sent metal fragments and nails into a crowd of thousands of runners and spectators, killing three people and wounding 180.

(JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

In this handout provided by The White House, President Barack Obama, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and First Lady Michelle Obama talks with Prince George at Kensington Palace on April 22, 2016 in London, England. The President and his wife are currently on a brief visit to the UK where they attended lunch with HM Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle and later dinner with Prince William and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge at Kensington Palace. Mr Obama visited 10 Downing Street this afternoon and held a joint press conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron where he stated his case for the UK to remain inside the European Union.

(Photo by Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images)

U.S. President Barack Obama blows a bubble from a bubble wand made with a 3D printer by nine-year old Jacob Leggette while touring exhibits at the White House Science Fair April 13, 2016 in Washington, DC. Leggette, of Baltimore, Maryland wanted to take on the Digital Harbor Foundation's MiniMakers challenge, but faced the practical problem of not having a 3D printer. Jacob wrote letters to different printer companies, asking if they would donate a 3D printer in return for feedback on how easily a then-eight-year-old could use their device. His sales pitch worked, and he has been creating toys and games ever since.

(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

In this handout from the White House, U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama wear 3-D glasses while watching Super Bowl during a Super Bowl party in the family theater of the White House February 2, 2009 in Washington, DC.

(Photo by Pete Souza/White House via Getty Images)

U.S. President Barack Obama (2nd L) and Vice President Joe Biden (L), along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011.

(REUTERS/White House/Pete Souza/Handout/File Photo)

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) gestures while chatting with US President Barack Obama sitting on a bench outside the Elmau Castle after a working session of a G7 summit near Garmisch-Partenkirchen, southern Germany, on June 8, 2015.

(MICHAEL KAPPELER/AFP/Getty Images)

In this handout image provided by the White House, U.S. President Barack Obama (R), first lady Michelle Obama (2L), and their daughter Malia Obama (L) meet with Malala Yousafzai in the Oval Office October 11, 2013 in Washington, DC. The Pakistani girl, 16, was shot in the head and neck in 2012 in Pakistan's Swat Valley by the Taliban for her activism for women's rights and education.

(Photo by Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images)

Pope Francis (C) and US President Barack Obama exchange gifts during a private audience on March 27, 2014 at the Vatican. The meeting at the Vatican comes as a welcome rest-stop for Obama during a six-day European tour dominated by the crisis over Crimea, and the US leader will doubtless be hoping some of the pope's overwhelming popularity will rub off on him.

(GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)

In this handout photo provided by the G20 Australia, Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott and United States' President Barack Obama meet Jimbelung the koala before the start of the first G20 meeting on November 15, 2014 in Brisbane, Australia. World leaders have gathered in Brisbane for the annual G20 Summit and are expected to discuss economic growth, free trade and climate change as well as pressing issues including the situation in Ukraine and the Ebola crisis.

(Photo by Andrew Taylor/G20 Australia via Getty Images)

In the oval office, Former President George Bush., President-elect Barack Obama, President George W. Bush, former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, Washington, D.C., January 7, 2009.

(Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)

In this handout image provided by The White House, President Barack Obama eats a nectarine following a town hall meeting at Kroger's Supermarket July 29, 2009 in Bristol, Virginia.

(Photo by Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images)

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) and Cuban President Raul Castro greet one another before bilateral meetings at the Palace of the Revolution March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. These are the first direct talks between Castro and Obama, the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba in 88 years.

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama enjoy a glass of Guinness in his ancestral home of Moneygall, on May 23, 2001 in Moneygall, Ireland. U.S. President Obama is visiting Ireland for one day. He will meet with distant relatives in Moneygall and speak at a rally in central Dublin after a concert.

(Photo by Irish Government - Pool /Getty Images)

President Barack Obama fist-bumps custodian Lawrence Lipscomb in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building following the opening session of the White House Forum on Jobs and Economic Growth, Dec. 3, 2009.

(Photo by Pete Souza/White House/Handout/The White House/Corbis via Getty Images)

Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz (L) poses for a 'selfie' with U.S. President Barack Obama during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House to honor the 2013 World Series Champion Boston Red Sox April 1, 2014 in Washington, DC. The Red Sox defeated the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2013 World Series.

(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden share a laugh as the US Senior Men's National Team and Brazil play during a pre-Olympic exhibition basketball game at the Verizon Center on July 16, 2012 in Washington, DC.

(Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

U.S. President Barack Obama dances with Santa Claus during the lighting of the National Christmas tree on December 4, 2014 in Washington, DC. The tree lighting ceremony marks a month-long series of holiday events in President's Park at The White House.

(Photo by Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images)

US President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton embrace on the third day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center, July 27, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton received the number of votes needed to secure the party's nomination. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Philadelphia, including hundreds of protesters and members of the media. The four-day Democratic National Convention kicked off July 25.

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The presidents translator, Luther (L), as portrayed by comedian Keegan-Michael Key, gestures as President Barack Obama speaks at the annual White House Correspondent's Association Gala at the Washington Hilton hotel April 25, 2015 in Washington, D.C. The dinner is an annual event attended by journalists, politicians and celebrities.

(Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)

In this handout provided by The White House, U.S. President Barack Obama shoots clay targets with a shotgun on the range on August 4, 2012 at Camp David, Maryland. Obama has put forth great effort to pass legislation to ban assault rifles in the wake of the Newtown, CT shooting and was recently quoted as saying 'we do skeet shooting all the time,' at Camp David.

(Photo by Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images)

US President Barack Obama (R) and British Prime Minister David Cameron pose for a selfie picture with Denmark's Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt (C) next to US First Lady Michelle Obama (R) during the memorial service of South African former president Nelson Mandela at the FNB Stadium (Soccer City) in Johannesburg on December 10, 2013. Mandela, the revered icon of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and one of the towering political figures of the 20th century, died in Johannesburg on December 5 at age 95.

(ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

US President Barack Obama, speaking of receiving injections, frowns while addressing the American Nurses Association House of Delegates June 16, 2010 at a hotel in Washington, DC.

(MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

In this handout from the White House, U.S. President Barack Obama jumps into the ocean at Pyramid Rock Beach January 1, 2013 in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. Obama is currently on vacation in his native state.

(Photo by Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images)

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) and his daughters Malia (L) and Sasha (C) walk across the South Lawn of the White House after arriving by Marine One January 5, 2014 in Washington, DC. Obama returns from a two-week holiday in Hawaii.

(Photo by Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images)

In this handout image provided by the White House, U.S. President Barack Obama kisses First Lady Michelle Obama for the 'Kiss Cam' while Vice President Joe Biden and Malia Obama look up at the jumbotron, during the U.S. Men's Olympic basketball team's game against Brazil at the Verizon Center on July 16, 2012 in Washington, D.C.

(Photo by Pete Souza/White House Photo via Getty Images)

In this handout from The White House, US President Barack Obama sits on the famed Rosa Parks bus at the Henry Ford Museum following an event April 18, 2012 in Dearborn, Michigan.

(Photo by Pete Souza/White House Photo via Getty Images)

The wind picks up U.S. President Barack Obama's tie as he walks back to the Oval Office after welcoming the National Football League Super Bowl champions New York Giants to the White House June 8, 2012 in Washington, DC. The Giants defeated The New England Patriots 21-17 to win Super Bowl XXXXVI.

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In this handout image released by the White House on April 13, 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama runs down a corridor with the family's new dog, Bo, a six-month old Portuguese water dog, in the White House in Washington, DC. Bo is a gift from Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and his wife Victoria to the President's daughters, Sasha and Malia.

(Photo by Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images)

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Obama likened the debate around marijuana reform to same-sex marriage — change happens incrementally at first.

"There's something to this whole states-being-laboratories-of-democracy and an evolutionary approach," Obama said. "You now have about a fifth of the country where this is legal."

While marijuana advocates welcomed Obama's comments, some say he should have taken more action on the issue during his presidency.

"It would have been very helpful if he had taken more concrete positive action on this issue before it was almost time to vacate the Oval Office," Tom Angell, of the pro-legalization group Marijuana Majority told Business Insider. "That this president didn't apply pressure on the DEA to reschedule marijuana this year will likely go down as one of the biggest disappointments of the Obama era."

Groups on the other side of the debate point to Trump's pick for secretary of health and human services, Tom Price, as evidence that the president-elect will not make any moves to soften the federal government's stance on marijuana reform.

"It appears that Trump is picking people who are pretty anti-marijuana," Kevin Sabet, the president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana told Business Insider. "HHS [health and human services] plays a big role in drug prevention and I think that what we need is more awareness and prevention around marijuana, so this pick is encouraging."

Obama, for his part, said that he'll use his profile as a private citizen to move the needle on marijuana reform after he leaves office.

"I will have the opportunity as a private citizen to describe where I think we need to go," Obama told The Rolling Stone. "This is a debate that is now ripe, much in the same way that we ended up making progress on same-sex marriage."

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SEE ALSO: Here's where President-elect Donald Trump stands on marijuana legalization

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