President says he won't go after Washington over legalized pot

President says he won't go after Washington over legalized pot »Play Video
AP Photo/Ed Andrieski

WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama says the federal government won't go after recreational marijuana use in Washington state and Colorado, where voters have legalized it.

In a Barbara Walters interview airing Friday on ABC, Obama was asked whether he supports making pot legal.

"I wouldn't go that far," Obama replied. "But what I think is that, at this point, Washington and Colorado, you've seen the voters speak on this issue."

But the president said he won't pursue the issue in the two states where voters legalized the use of marijuana in the November elections. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

"... as it is, the federal government has a lot to do when it comes to criminal prosecutions," Obama said. "It does not make sense, from a prioritization point of view, for us to focus on recreational drug users in a state that has already said that under state law, that's legal."

Marijuana officially became legal in Washington state and Colorado this month.

The Justice Department hasn't targeted recreational marijuana users for decades. With limited resources, its focus has been to go after major drug traffickers instead.

Nonetheless, the Justice Department has said repeatedly in recent weeks that it is reviewing the legalization initiatives passed in Colorado and Washington state. The states have expressed concern that the federal government might sue over the issue. Department officials have said they are waiting to see what regulations the two states adopt to implement the initiatives.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Friday the president believes there are "bigger fish to fry" in prioritizing law enforcement goals.

"But the law is the law, and that is why he has directed the Department of Justice to review these ballot initiatives and make some assessments about how to proceed," Carney said.

Marijuana proponents generally welcomed the president's remarks

"There's some signal of hope," Alison Holcomb, who led Washington's legalization drive, said of Obama's statements. "I think it's correct that we ultimately we need a legislative resolution."

But Tom Angell of the group Marijuana Majority said Obama's comment don't add anything new. He said the federal government rarely goes after users and Obama can do more besides passing the responsibility to Congress. Angell said Obama can use executive power to reclassify marijuana as a legal drug.

Federal prosecutors haven't generally targeted users in the 18 states and Washington, D.C. that allow people to use marijuana for medical reasons. However, federal agents have still cracked down on dozens of dispensaries in some of those states.

Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., said Obama's statements weren't definitive but were encouraging.

"I think the president's comments are a good sign that the federal government might be willing to work with our state as we work to develop a new regulatory model for marijuana," she said.

Washington's Governor-elect Jay Inslee said Obama's statement didn't answer some key questions, but makes for a positive start to state operations.

Legalization activists in Colorado tried and failed to get the president to take a stand on the marijuana measure on his many campaign trips to the battleground state.

"Here's the president, an admitted marijuana user in his youth, who's previously shown strong support for this, and then he didn't want to touch it because it was such a close race, "said Joe Megyesy, a spokesman for Colorado marijuana legalization group.

Possession of up to an ounce of marijuana is now legal for adults over 21 in both Washington and Colorado.

Washington's Liquor Control Board, which has been regulating alcohol for 78 years, has a year to adopt rules for the fledgling pot industry.

Spokesman Mikhail Carpenter said Obama's comments provide clarification on the issue, but won't change how the board is moving forward because they are already well into the process.

Carpenter said that the rulemaking process on producer licenses began last week. Public hearings will start sometime in April.

Colorado's marijuana measure requires lawmakers to allow commercial pot sales, and a state task force that will begin writing those regulations meets Monday.

State officials have reached out to the Justice Department seeking help on regulating a new legal marijuana industry but haven't heard back.

In the department's most recent statement on the issue, the U.S. attorney for Colorado said Monday that the department's responsibility to enforce the federal Controlled Substances Act "remains unchanged."

"Neither states nor the executive branch can nullify a statute passed by Congress," U.S. Attorney John Walsh said. "Regardless of any changes in state law, including the change that will go into effect on Dec. 10 in Colorado, growing, selling or possessing any amount of marijuana remains illegal under federal law."