Obama: Marijuana Crackdown Not a "Top Priority"

In his first comments on the issue, President Barack Obama said that prosecuting pot smokers in Colorado and Washington should not be a “top priority” of the federal government.
by | December 14, 2012
A person smoking marijuana in Washington state, where voters legalized the drug's recreational use; however people are still prohibited from using it in public. (Photo: AP/Ted S. Warren)

As the White House continues to walk a delicate line in responding to Colorado and Washington voters' decision to legalize marijuana, President Barack Obama told ABC News that prosecuting recreational pot smokers in those states should not be a “top priority” of the federal government.

“We’ve got bigger fish to fry,” Obama told ABC News in an interview. “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.”

They were the president’s first public comments on the issue since residents in Colorado and Washington state voted by double-digit margins in November to legalize marijuana for recreational use while taxing and regulating the drug like alcohol.

As Governing has reported, the legalization initiatives have set those states on a collision course with federal law, which still categorizes marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance that's banned for all purposes. But though federal law trumps state law in theory, cracking down on the legalization efforts could be politically hazardous for the Obama administration. A Dec. 10 Gallup poll found that 64 percent of Americans believe the federal government should not interfere with the states’ legalization plans.

Obama also hinted in his interview with ABC News that Congress may change federal drug laws regarding marijuana.

"This is a tough problem, because Congress has not yet changed the law," Obama said. "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?"

The White House’s approach to medical marijuana, which has been unspoken endorsement with occasional enforcement actions against commercial operations, could be a template for its approach to outright legalization, according to Robert Mikos, a University of Vanderbilt professor who studies marijuana policy. Medical marijuana is now legal in 18 states.

“You have a model for what the federal government might do in medical marijuana. They've used a lot of subtle techniques to crack down on medical marijuana programs,” he said.

The administration declined to comment on the Colorado and Washington initiatives before they passed and hasn’t taken an official position since. ABC News reported that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is in the process of drafting a response to the initiatives, which have since taken effect in both states this month. According to the New York Times, which cited administration sources, officials from the White House and the U.S. Justice Department are considering filing a lawsuit to block implementation of the laws, but it would take time to develop.

As the Huffington Post reported last month, legalization advocates have found some allies on Capitol Hill since the initiatives passed. For example, 18 members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter to the White House asking the administration not to take any action to block implementation of the new state laws.