SEATTLE — Backers of new laws that legalized marijuana in Washington and Colorado were cautiously optimistic after President Barack Obama said Uncle Sam wouldn’t pursue pot users in those states.
Following the November votes in Washington and Colorado the Justice Department reiterated that marijuana remains illegal under federal law, but had been vague about what its specific response would be.
In a Barbara Walters interview airing Friday on ABC, President Barack Obama said: “It does not make sense from a prioritization point of view” to focus on drug use in states where it is now legal.
Marijuana activists were relieved at Obama’s comments, but still had questions about how regulation will work. They said even if individual users aren’t charged with crimes, marijuana producers and sellers could be subject to prosecution, civil forfeiture and other legal roadblocks.
And the president didn’t specifically address how the federal government would respond to state officials in Washington and Colorado, who under the new laws are now tasked with coming up with regulations for commercial pot sales.
Obama simply told Walters that going after “recreational users” would not be a “top priority.”
That, in itself, is not a major shift in federal policy, said Alison Holcomb, who ran the campaign to pass Initiative 502 in Washington. “Recreational use has never been a high priority for federal law enforcement.”
More important, Holcomb said, may be Obama’s acknowledgement that public opinion on marijuana legalization is changing, his mention of discussions over reconciling federal and state laws in places like Washington and Colorado that have taken that step, and priorities on preventing underage use of the drug.
I-502 keeps marijuana illegal for minors and calls for taxes on the drug to help pay for prevention programs, she said.
Obama’s comments also seem timely because Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is calling for congressional hearings on federal marijuana laws.
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.
“It was frustrating,” said Joe Megyesy, a spokesman for Colorado marijuana legalization group.
“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.”
Megyesy said Obama’s comments were “good news,” but left unanswered many questions about how marijuana regulation will work. Even if individual users aren’t charged with crimes, marijuana producers and sellers could be subject to prosecution and civil forfeiture and other legal roadblocks. Marijuana is a crop that can’t be insured, and federal drug law prevents banks from knowingly serving the industry, leaving it a cash-only business that’s difficult to regulate.
“I’m wondering what sort of things are going to happen now on the civil side of things,” Megyesy said. “It seems like (Obama) was talking strictly about the criminal side, which is great, but doesn’t the answer the question of how the Department of Justice is going to respond to this.”
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, now has a year to adopt rules for the fledgling pot industry.
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.