WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama and a key Senate Democrat said Friday they are willing to consider relaxing federal enforcement of the laws against marijuana for those who possess small amounts of the drug.
They were reacting to new voter-approved laws in Washington and Colorado that permit recreational users to have an ounce of marijuana at home. In addition, 18 other states now permit the medical use of marijuana.
Despite this state-by-state move toward limited legalization, federal law still classifies marijuana as a highly dangerous drug and makes it a crime to sell or possess even tiny amounts.
“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 it’s legal?” Obama told ABC News.
The president said he is not ready “at this point” to support widespread legalization of marijuana, but added: “It would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined it’s legal. We’ve got bigger fish to fry.”
Washington’s governor-elect, Jay Inslee, applauded Obama’s remarks.
“The president’s statement is welcome news to a state where voters have clearly expressed the same sentiment,” Inslee said. “Several questions remain but this is a very positive start.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said his panel would consider legislation early next year that could ease federal law for marijuana possession.
“One option would be to amend the Federal Controlled Substances Act to allow possession of up to ounce of marijuana, at least in jurisdictions where it is legal under state law,” Leahy said in a letter to R. Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Leahy asked Kerlikowske, the administration’s so-called drug czar, “what assurance can and will the administration give to state officials involved in the licensing of marijuana retailers that they will not face federal criminal penalties for carrying out duties assigned to them under state law.”
Leahy said Obama’s comments “reflect common sense. In a time of tight budget constraints, I want law enforcement to focus on violent crime.”
Critics of the federal drug laws saw the comments from Obama and Leahy as a sign that Washington’s rigid opposition to marijuana may be ending.
“It’s a tentative step in the right direction,” Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said of Obama’s statement. “He said we need a ‘conversation,’ and that’s very promising. This sounds a lot of like what he said about gay marriage a couple of years ago.”
Alison Holcomb, who ran the campaign in the state of Washington to approve Initiative 502, said the comments don’t mark a major shift in federal policy.
“Recreational use has never been a high priority for federal law enforcement,” Holcomb said.
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 putting priorities on preventing underage use of the drug.