DENVER — President Obama has made his most candid remarks to date about marijuana legalization in Colorado, telling ABC’s Barbara Walters this week that prosecuting recreational users shouldn’t be “a top priority.”
In his first comments since Colorado voters passed a measure decriminalizing recreational marijuana use, the president said he believed in deferring to the will of the states, at least up to a point.
“We’ve got bigger fish to fry,” said Obama in the interview, excerpts of which were released Friday by ABC News. “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.”
In November, voters in Washington and Colorado passed measures legalizing limited recreational marijuana use for adults 21 and over. Officials in both states are waiting for guidance on how the Justice Department plans to treat the state laws, which conflict with federal narcotics bans.
An avid pothead in his teen years, Obama said he did not support legalizing marijuana across the board.
“I wouldn’t go that far, but what I think is that at this point Washington and Colorado, you’ve seen the voters speak on this issue,” said Obama. “And as it is, the federal government has a lot to do when it comes to criminal prosecutions. It does not make sense from a prioritization point of view to focus on drug users in a state where the state has said that that’s legal.”
Attorney General Eric Holder told reporters Wednesday that the department is reviewing the two state measures.
“There are a number of issues that have to be considered, among them the impact that drug usage has on young people, [and] we have treaty obligations with nations outside the United States,” Holder said.
Mason Tvert, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, urged the Obama administration to work with state officials to enact state-based regulatory systems for marijuana possession and sales.
“President Obama acknowledged that arresting marijuana consumers should not be a priority of the federal government,” said Tvert, who ran Colorado’s Amendment 64 campaign. “The question that remains is whether these consumers should purchase marijuana in legitimate businesses in a state-regulated market, or from cartels and gangs in the underground market.”
He added, “These states and the Obama administration must now determine how to work together to advance such a state-based system without undermining legitimate federal interests.”
The president’s full interview with Walters is scheduled to air Friday on ABC-TV’s “20/20.”