Obama Comments Beg the Question on Marijuana Legalizationby Phillip Smith
Dec. 17, 2012
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In an interview Friday with ABC News' Barbara Walters, President Obama said going after marijuana smokers in states that have legalized it should not be a "top priority" of federal law enforcement, but he failed to address how the federal government would respond to efforts by state governments in Colorado and Washington to implement taxation and regulation schemes for legal marijuana commerce.
Amendment 64 in Colorado and Initiative 502 in Washington were both approved by voters in last month's elections. Their provisions legalizing marijuana possession (and cultivation in Colorado) are already in effect, but officials in the two states are now charged with crafting those taxation and regulation rules.
The looming question is what the federal government will do about that. President Obama's comments Friday did not shed new light on that topic.
"We've got bigger fish to fry" than going after individual pot smokers in Colorado and Washington, Obama said. "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."
That is in parallel with the administration's approach to medical marijuana. It has not gone after individual patients, but in the past two years, the Obama Justice Department has vigorously and aggressively targeted medical marijuana cultivators and dispensaries for raids, threats of asset forfeiture, and, more rarely, federal criminal prosecutions.
Obama also told Walters that he does not support marijuana legalization "at this point," but he added that shifting public opinion -- polls are now showing majorities in favor of legalization -- and questions about how to allocate limited government resources are good reasons to seek to find a middle ground on dealing with the weed.
The president also said he had asked Attorney General Eric Holder and the Justice Department to look into how to resolve the conflict between state and federal laws. Marijuana remains a Schedule I drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act.
"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 is how do you reconcile a federal law that still says marijuana is a federal offense and state laws that say that it's legal?" Obama said.
Holder said Wednesday that he expected a Justice Department review to be completed "relatively soon."
While Obama notoriously partook of the weed in his youth, being a leading member of the "Choom Gang" of serious recreational puffers, according to biographer David Maraniss, he has downplayed his own use and not favored marijuana legalization. He told Walters Friday he had regrets over his youthful behavior.
"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. "I want to discourage drug use," he added.