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Anchored by Jake Tapper, The Lead airs at 4 p.m. ET on CNN.

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January 31st, 2014
10:42 AM ET

Obama on the problem of criminalizing marijuana use

Waukesha, Wisconsin (CNN) - When it was pointed out that the President's remarks to The New Yorker magazine about marijuana – which he described as a bad habit but not any worse for a person than alcohol – contradict the administration's official policy on marijuana, Obama stood by his views.

"I stand by my belief based on the scientific evidence that marijuana for casual users, individual users, is subject to abuse, just like alcohol is and should be treated as a public health problem and challenge," Obama said in an exclusive interview with CNN.

The President declined to say whether he would support removing marijuana as a "Schedule One" narcotic, a classification that includes heroin and ecstasy.

But when CNN asked him if he was willing to downgrade pot from a "Schedule One" narcotic, a category reserved for substances like heroin and LSD, Obama put the responsibility on Congress to make the move.

But according the Drug Enforcement Administration's own website, the President's Attorney General has the authority to "remove any drug or other substance from the schedules," if he thinks it's been mislabeled.

Obama said his main concern is the criminalization of marijuana use.

"My concern is when you end up having very heavy criminal penalties for individual users that have been applied unevenly and, in some cases, with a racial disparity," he said.

"I think that is a problem. We're going to see what happens in the experiments in Colorado and Washington. The Department of Justice under Eric Holder has said that we are going to continue to enforce federal laws."

At the same time, the President said the federal government doesn't have the resources to police whether somebody is "smoking a joint on the corner."

Rather, he said, the government was working to make sure that drug traffickers and the spillover of violence from the drug trade are not "creeping out of this experiment that is taking place."

Obama offered what he described as a "cautionary note" for those who see legalization of marijuana as a panacea.

"I think they have to ask themselves some tough questions, too. Because if we start having a situation where big corporations with lots of resources and distribution and marketing arms are suddenly going out there, peddling marijuana, then the levels of abuse that may take place are going to be higher," he said.

More of our exclusive interview here.

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