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Obama says going after marijuana 'not a top priority' (+video)

Marijuana remains an illegal drug under federal law even though voters in Colorado and Washington State recently approved ballot measures legalizing small amounts of pot for adults.

By Staff writer / December 14, 2012

President Obama speaks at the Interior Department in Washington. The president has said he won't go after Washington state and Colorado for legalizing marijuana, in a Barbara Walters interview airing Friday on ABC.

Carolyn Kaster/AP/File

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Regarding marijuana – Americans’ largely illegal recreational drug of choice – Barack Obama has two roles.

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As president, he’s sworn to uphold the laws of the land, which include a federal prohibition on the sale and possession of marijuana. And as the father of two children headed for high school, he advises his girls not to do as he did when he was a teenager – smoke dope with his friends.

But Mr. Obama also has to weigh the evolving political backdrop for US drug policy, which includes growing public acceptance of marijuana as the kind of substance that should be allowed for adults while being strictly regulated and taxed like alcohol.

In an interview with ABC’s Barbara Walters to be broadcast Friday evening, Obama said, “We have bigger fish to fry.”

“It would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined that it’s legal,” he told Ms. Walters. 

In last month’s elections, voters in Colorado and Washington State approved ballot measures legalizing small amounts of marijuana for adults over 21. Also on Election Day, Massachusetts joined 17 other states that allow the medical use of marijuana.

Until now, federal drug policy regarding recreational and medical marijuana – on the books and in practice – has been clear: “Just say no,” to use the phrase championed by former first lady Nancy Reagan.

Federal agents have cracked down on medical marijuana dispensaries in California. With the state legalization of pot in Colorado and Washington, the conflict between federal and state law becomes more complicated, Obama acknowledges.

“I head up the executive branch; we’re supposed to be carrying out laws,” he said in the ABC interview. “And so what we’re going to need to have is a conversation about: How do you reconcile a federal law that still says marijuana is a federal offense and state laws that say that it’s legal?”

US Attorney General Eric Holder took essentially the same line earlier this week.

“There is a tension between federal law and these state laws,” Mr. Holder said in response to questions after a speech in Boston. “I would expect the policy pronouncement that we’re going to make will be done relatively soon.”
 
"We are looking at those two initiatives those two statutes and trying to determine exactly how we will respond,” he said. "There are a number of issues that have to be considered, among them the impact that drug usage has on young people, we have treaty obligations with nations outside the United States – there are a whole variety of things that have to go into the determination that we are in the process of making."

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