It's been over a month since voters in Colorado and the state of Washington approved ballot measures to legalize recreational use and sale of marijuana, despite federal law that reaches a very different conclusion. Yesterday, President Obama addressed the discrepancy for the first time.
President Obama says 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," Obama said of pot users in Colorado and Washington during an exclusive interview with ABC News' Barbara Walters.
"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 said, invoking the same approach taken toward users of medicinal marijuana in 18 states where it's legal.
The president added that this is a tough problem, because Congress has not yet changed the law." He told ABC, "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?"
While Obama's comments will be heartening to many on the left, especially those who voted with the majority in Colorado and Washington, and it makes sense the president has little interest in sending federal law enforcement after "recreational users," it's far less clear whether the DEA intends to take a similar approach when dealing with those who cultivate and sell marijuana, even in states where it's legal.
As Matt Yglesias explained, "The DEA doesn't have the resources to target a guy for sharing a bowl with his friends, but they certainly do have the resources to target a large marijuana farm or a fixed-location marijuana retailer trying to establish a legal business. What's more, they have the resources to arrest and prosecute state officials who involve themselves in the licensing and permitting for legal marijuana businesses."
Congressional intervention is needed and practically inevitable. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said yesterday the Senate Judiciary Committee is planning a hearing early next year to examine the legal ambiguities and consider legislative options.