President Obama told ABC News’s Barbara Walters in an interview this week that recreational pot smoking in states that have legalized the drug is not a major concern for his administration.
“We’ve got bigger fish to fry,” 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.”
Those comments provide a glimpse into the president’s thinking, but they hardly remove the legal uncertainty surrounding the issue. Under Obama, the Drug Enforcement Administration has aggressively gone after medical marijuana dispensaries in California, where they are legal. In September, federal officials raided several Los Angeles shops and sent warnings to many more.
“This is a tough problem, because Congress has not yet changed the law,” Obama told Walters of the legalization in Colorado and Washington. “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?”
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a speech Wednesday that he would announce a policy on the new state laws “relatively soon,” and a Justice Department spokeswoman on Friday said the marijuana issue is “under review.”
Despite that lingering ambiguity, state officials in Washington and Colorado are pushing forward with plans to put in place a broad legal marijuana market, saying that they must respect the wishes of voters.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) this week signed a declaration formalizing the marijuana legalization measure, known as Amendment 64, which he had publicly opposed. The same day, he signed an executive order creating a task force to find “practical and pragmatic solutions” for implementing it.
Under Amendment 64, Colorado’s department of revenue must begin accepting applications for marijuana business licenses by next October and must begin issuing new licenses by Jan. 1, 2014, or cede that authority to local governments. In Washington state, the state liquor control board has until next December to put in place the procedures for licensing and regulating the drug.