Marijuana reformers are cautiously optimistic about President Obama’s declaration that the administration will let smokers off the hook in states where the drug is now legal. But remarks he made to ABC’s Barbara Walters on the topic left most of the biggest issues unresolved, leaving pro-legalization advocates concerned that the potential remains for a federal crackdown in Colorado and Washington, whose residents voted to end pot prohibition in November.
The biggest news is that Obama ruled out a widespread campaign against individual users. According to a report in the New York Times, the administration was at least considering bringing forward prosecutions against small-time smokers as a stern reminder that federal drug laws remain in full effect, so this provides some clarity in that regard.
“We’ve got bigger fish to fry,” Obama told ABC. “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.”
But the federal government doesn’t traditionally have the resources or mandate to go after minor drug offenses anyway, so it’s unclear how significant an olive branch Obama offered. The bigger outstanding concern for legalization proponents is whether growers and distributors of pot who can now operate legally in Colorado and Washington will be targeted by federal law enforcement. There are also concerns that state officials tasked with regulating and taxing sales of the drug could face federal prosecution.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) recently wrote to the administration’s drug czar Gil Kerlikowske asking for clarification on exactly those points and announcing a hearing to investigate the matter further. He also suggested Congress consider passing a law legalizing marijuana within states that have chosen to do so, but Obama told ABC he did not consider widespread legalization an option “at this point.”
Erik Altieri, a spokesman for anti-prohibition group NORML, wrote that Obama’s recent comments were “a great start and an encouraging sign that the federal government doesn’t intend to ramp up its focus on individual users” but warned supporters not to let their guard down.
“[C]onsidering it is extremely rare for the federal government to handle possession cases (only a few percent of annual arrests are conducted by the federal government), and that this is the same stance he took on medical cannabis before raiding more dispensaries than his predecessor, his administration’s broader policy will be the one to watch and according to his Attorney General Holder that pronouncement may come soon,” Altieri said in a blog post on NORML’s website.
Morgan Fox, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, another pro-legalization group, told TPM in an e-mail that Obama “isn’t saying anything new” when it comes to policy.
“It is positive to see Obama reiterate his position regarding individual marijuana users, but he needs to commit to not interfering with the full implementation of these laws,” Fox said.
Activists are still stinging from what they claim are particularly aggressive tactics by the administration against medical marijuana in states that have legalized its use. Especially troubling to them is that Obama downplayed federal intervention upon taking office, before taking a harder line later.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.