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Vice Interview: Why President Obama dismisses legalized marijuana (+video)

President Obama advises young voters to think about climate change, the economy, jobs, war and peace – before legalizing marijuana. 

President Barack Obama has a message for young people: Care more about the environment, the economy, and foreign relations, and less about pot.

That was in response to a question from Vice News founder Shane Smith, who said marijuana legalization was the No. 1 question on readers' minds. If the president's administration legalized marijuana, for young people, "it will be the biggest part of your legacy,"  Mr. Smith said.

"Young people, I understand this is important to you," Mr. Obama said in the interview, which Vice released Monday afternoon at 4:20, alluding to the number 420, a popular reference to marijuana. "But you should be thinking about climate change, the economy, jobs, war and peace. Maybe, way at the bottom, you should be thinking about marijuana."

That was among the many topics – including climate change, the Islamic State, Iran, and partisan gridlock in Washington – Obama addressed in the wide-ranging interview with Vice.

On marijuana, Obama was measured, suggesting that even some conservative Republicans recognize that the current policies don't make sense, and noted the ill effect current drug laws have on the criminal justice system, which cracks down on non-violent drug offenders, particularly in communities of color.

In fact, according to a recent study from the American Civil Liberties Union, blacks were nearly four times as likely as whites to be arrested on charges of marijuana possession in 2010, even though usage was about the same for both groups. In Washington, D.C., Iowa, Minnesota, and Illinois, blacks were 7.5 to 8.5 times more likely than whites to be arrested for possessing pot, as the Huffington Post reported.

Some 51 percent of Americans said they favor legalization of marijuana, according to a recent Gallup survey. That's part of a decade-long trend in favor of legalization. In 2004, nearly two-thirds of Americans were against it.

Marijuana legalization is slowly spreading: Medical marijuana is now legal in 23 states and in Washington, D.C., and consuming recreational marijuana is now legal in three states and Washington, D.C. Oregon's law legalizing recreational marijuana is set to take effect July 1. Marijuana consumption remains illegal under federal law.

Obama, who has acknowledged smoking pot in high school, has maintained a measured approach on the issue. He has said the drug should be decriminalized, but not made legal, and has called for changing prison sentencing rules for certain drug offenses.

Here are three other noteworthy moments from Obama's interview with Vice:

On Republicans' letter to Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei:

"I'm embarrassed for them," Obama said regarding the 47 Republican senators who signed a letter to Iran criticizing the president’s nuclear deal proposal. 

"For them to address a letter to the Ayatollah, the supreme leader of Iran who they claim is our mortal enemy, and their basic argument to them is don't deal with our president ... that's close to unprecedented."

On climate change:

Obama singled out Sen. Jim Inhofe, (R) of Oklahoma, who famously threw a snowball on the Senate floor to refute claims of global warming. Mr. Inhofe is now chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which Obama said is “disturbing.”

But he offered hope for the future, insisting that views on climate change are generational.

“What keeps me optimistic is you talk to Malia and Sasha, you know, 16 and 13, and the sophistication and awareness that they have about environmental issues compared to my generation or yours, they’re way ahead of the game,” Obama said, adding, "There’s always going to be resistance to change. And some of that is going to be generational. I guarantee you that the Republican Party will have to change its approach to climate change because voters will insist upon it.”

On Islamic State:

"ISIL is a direct outgrowth of Al Qaeda in Iraq, that grew out of our invasion, which is an example of unintended consequences,” Obama told Smith when asked about the rise of the extremist force in Syria and Iraq. “We should generally aim before we shoot,” he said in an apparent dig at President George W. Bush.

He also expressed concern for the potential for future extremism unless its root causes are addressed. "I’m worried about how, even if ISIL is defeated, the underlying problem of disaffected Sunnis around the world ... where a young man who’s growing up has no education, has no prospects for the future, is looking around and the one way he can get validation, power, respect is if he’s a fighter," Obama said. "That’s a problem we’re going to have, generally. And we can’t keep thinking about counterterrorism and security as entirely separate from diplomacy, development, education."

On the best and worst parts of the job:

"This is a fun job," Obama told Smith. "Every day I wake up and I get a bird's eye view on what's going on everywhere in the world."

But he expressed frustration with partisan gridlock, saying, "You've got one side who are denying the facts, who are often motivated principally by opposing whatever I propose," he said, dismissing the behavior as a phase. "That’s not inevitable to our democracy; that’s a phase the Republican Party is going through right now, and it’ll outgrow that phase.

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