Obama says going after marijuana 'not a top priority'

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.

Carolyn Kaster/AP/File
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.

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

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."

Advocates of marijuana decriminalization say they’re encouraged by Obama’s comments this week.

“This is a great start and an encouraging sign that the federal government doesn’t intend to ramp up its focus on individual users,” Erik Altieri, communications director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said on NORML’s website.

“Though considering it is extremely rare for the federal government to handle possession cases (only a few percent of annual arrests are conducted by the federal government), and that this is the same stance he took on medical cannabis before raiding more dispensaries than his predecessor, his administration’s broader policy will be the one to watch…,” Mr. Altieri said.

Joe Megyesy, a spokesman for Colorado’s marijuana legalization group, said Obama's comments were "good news" as far as they went, but left unanswered many questions about how regulation would work, reports the Associated Press.

Even if individual users aren't charged with crimes, marijuana producers and sellers could be subject to prosecution and civil forfeiture and other legal roadblocks. Marijuana is a crop that can't be insured, and federal drug law prevents banks from knowingly serving the industry, leaving it a cash-only business that's difficult to regulate.

"I'm wondering what sort of things are going to happen now on the civil side of things," Mr. Megyesy told the AP. "It seems like [Obama] was talking strictly about the criminal side, which is great, but doesn't answer the question of how the Department of Justice is going to respond to this."

It seems likely that Congress will take up the issue after the holiday break.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont says he plans to hold a session in the new Congress to examine how federal laws and enforcement square with new state laws legalizing pot, reports The Washington Post.

“One option would be to amend the Federal Controlled Substances Act to allow possession of up to one ounce of marijuana, at least in jurisdictions where it is legal under state law,” Senator Leahy wrote in a recent letter to Obama administration drug czar Gil Kerlikowske.

Over the years, public approval of marijuana legalization has steadily inched upward, reaching the 50 percent point in October, according to Gallup.

Still, many Americans agree with Obama’s comments about his own youthful experience seen in light of fatherhood.

“There are a bunch of things I did that I regret when I was a kid,” Obama told Walters. “My attitude is, substance abuse generally is not good for our kids, not good for our society.”

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