President Barack Obama suggested on Thursday that his administration would not crack down on new laws legalizing recreational marijuana in Washington and Colorado.
Both states have been awaiting Washington’s response, given the fact that cannabis is still banned under the federal Controlled Substances Act. In an interview with ABC’s Barbara Walters, Obama gave the strongest indication yet of the path his administration would pursue.
“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,” he added.
Washington and Colorado are both in uncharted territory. New voter-approved laws in both states allow adults to possess small amounts of marijuana for recreational use, leading law enforcement officials to begin marijuana possession cases.
But the Obama administration has aggressively gone after medical marijuana dispensaries in California, saying they are illicit commercial operations functioning under the guise of providing medical relief. Advocates have criticized the crackdown as a reversal on the part of the Obama administration, pointing to a 2009 memo suggesting the U.S Department of Justice would not interfere.
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The administration has been mum so far, with Attorney General Eric Holder saying on Wednesday that the Justice Department would release guidance “relatively soon.” In his interview with Barbara Walters, Obama acknowledged the thorny legal issues at play.
“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 president was a cannabis connoisseur during his adolescence in Hawaii, reportedly belonging to a group of smokers dubbed the “Choom gang.” But despite the popularity of online petitions urging the White House to consider legalizing marijuana use, Obama said that he did not support legalization “at this point.”
“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.”