In his first public remarks since ballot initiatives passed in Washington and Colorado to legalize and regulate marijuana, President Obama said going after recreational marijuana users in states where it is legal is not a “top priority.”
In excerpts from an exclusive 20/20 interview that airs Friday night, ABC News reports that Obama still does not “at this point” support widespread legalization of marijuana, but that shifting public opinion and limited federal resources are reasons to find middle ground:
We’ve got 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.
This is a tough problem, because Congress has not yet changed the law. I head up the executive branch; we’re supposed to be carrying out laws. 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?
In citing the duties of the executive branch to carry out existing laws, Obama suggests he might be supportive of some changes of the law, though he added that he wants to “discourage drug use” and that “there are a bunch of things I did that I regret when I was a kid.” Just yesterday, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) revealed that he would be open to softening the federal law prohibiting all marijuana use.
Obama’s comments are a positive signal that the administration is open to shifting attitudes on marijuana legalization and a move away from the harsh crackdowns of the failed War on Drugs. But they are not very dissimilar from his and the Department of Justice’s comments on medical marijuana use in the wake those state laws’ passage, when the Justice Department also said it would not prioritize those compliant with state law, but has since fluctuated on its position.
Obama’s remarks leave many of the most relevant questions unanswered, including how the Justice Department will handle the dispensaries that will become licensed under these two laws. Federal drug crackdowns have never focused on individual “users,” and it is the suppliers and distributors that would be the natural target of federal action. Although the Obama administration does not crack down on individual medical marijuana users in states where it is legal, it has been increasingly aggressive in targeting dispensaries – even those that have seemingly been models of compliance with state law.
Obama also did not foreclose the possibility that the Department of Justice will sue to challenge the laws as preempted by the federal Controlled Substances Act, which makes the possession and sale of marijuana illegal. But he seemed to suggest he was moving away from absolute opposition to a new approach to drug policy, focusing instead on the public health concerns over drug abuse, particularly among children:
It makes sense for us to look at how we can make sure that our kids are discouraged from using drugs and engaging in substance abuse generally. There’s more work we can do on the public health side and the treatment side.
Backers of the Washington and Colorado laws to legalize marijuana proposed the measures to better achieve these public health and public safety goals, citing the failure of the 40-year War on Drugs.