Telling ABC News‘ Barbara Walters that “we’ve got bigger fish to fry,” President Obama broke his administration's silence on how it intends to deal with new marijuana legalization laws in both Washington state and Colorado.
Voters in both those states passed new laws in November that make recreational use and possession of certain amounts of pot legal, and the president's remarks seem to make it clear that federal enforcement agencies would not impose their authority on such infractions.
"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," Obama's said to Walters in an interview that will air tonight on ABC.
Despite what may appear clear to many supporters of legalization, the Drug Policy Alliance's Ethan Nadelmann said that a "parsing" of Obama's comments to Walters should be conducted. Citing four specific points that demand closer examination, Nadelmann writes:
The first is that he responded in a serious and substantive tone, which contrasted with the jokingly dismissive ways in which he answered questions about marijuana legalization just a few years ago. The ballot initiative victories in Colorado and Washington gave him no choice this time. Marijuana legalization is now a political reality.
The second was his comment -- highlighted by ABC in its news release -- that recreational users of marijuana in states that have legalized the substance should not be a "top priority" of federal law enforcement officials prosecuting the war on drugs. "We've got bigger fish to fry," he said. That statement is not news. Federal law enforcement officials have never prioritized going after users of marijuana. Obama has said much the same regarding medical consumers of marijuana, but that begs the question of whether consumers will be able to make their purchases from legal or only illegal sources.
The third was when Obama told Walters he does not -- "at this point" -- support widespread legalization of marijuana. The caveat "at this point" sounds a lot like how he responded to questions about legalizing gay marriage - until he finally decided it was time to publicly support it. Obama cited shifting public opinion and essentially made clear that this is not an issue on which he wants to provide leadership so long as public opinion is split and Congress unlikely to do anything constructive.
The fourth, and most substantive, comment was the following: "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?" What stands out here are the words about the "need to have... a conversation" and the fact that he is framing the conflict between federal and state law as a question to be resolved as opposed to one in which it is simply assumed that federal marijuana prohibition trumps all.
The national trend for support of marijuana legalization has been seen in recent polls, including a USA Today/Gallup poll conducted after November's election which showed that 64% of Americans think the federal government should not interfere with state laws determined by voters and a Quinnipiac poll which found that 51% of registered voters nationwide thought marijuana should be made legal at the federal level.