President Obama’s announcement on Thursday that he would take unilateral action to address the nation’s “broken” immigration system shares at least one thing in common with how his Justice Department approaches enforcement of the nation’s marijuana laws: We would do it if we could — but we can’t.

The federal government doesn’t have the manpower to find and remove each and every one of the millions of immigrants living here illegally — or to enforce the full extent of its myriad drug laws — so it should instead focus on the worst offenders.

Among the many moral and legal arguments that Obama laid out in his speech to the nation was this: Temporarily easing immigration laws for millions of undocumented immigrants was in part about choosing where to focus the government’s efforts:

And that’s why we’re going to keep focusing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security. Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids. We’ll prioritize, just like law enforcement does every day.
But even as we focus on deporting criminals, the fact is, millions of immigrants in every state, of every race and nationality still live here illegally. And let’s be honest -– tracking down, rounding up, and deporting millions of people isn’t realistic. Anyone who suggests otherwise isn’t being straight with you.

That line of reasoning may sound familiar: It’s the same logic that has allowed Colorado and Washington to move forward with their recreational marijuana laws.

After voters in both states approved ballot measures legalizing pot in 2012, the fate of those laws depended on the federal government’s reaction. If it wanted to, the Justice Department could have squashed them then and there. Mmarijuana use remains federally prohibited, and the administration could have vowed to enforce those laws within those state borders. Instead, in August 2013, the Justice Department, under Attorney General Eric Holder, announced that it would take a more pragmatic approach.

In a letter sent to U.S. attorneys nationwide, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole explained that, though marijuana was still federally illegal, the organization would choose its battles.

Congress has determined that marijuana is a dangerous drug and that the illegal distribution and sale of marijuana is a serious crime that provides a significant source of revenue to large-scale criminal enterprises, gangs, and cartels. The Department of Justice is committed to enforcement of the CSA consistent with those determinations. The Department is also committed to using its limited investigative and prosecutorial resources to address the most significant threats in the most effective, consistent, and rational way.

Again, the government would use its limited resources to address the worst offenders and offenses. Cole went on to list eight items that the federal government would focus on, including drug money supporting gang activity and distribution to minors.

The nation’s drug and immigration laws are different, of course, as is the administration’s approach to each. But in at least one way the approaches align: Certain violations of federal law will be ignored as the government focuses on the most egregious offense.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified one of the two states where voters approved marijuana legalization in 2012. It was approved in Washington and Colorado.