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Obama addresses legal Marijuana (finally) "not a priority to enforce in states"

By Basoodler, Dec 14, 2012 | Updated: Dec 14, 2012 | | |
  1. Basoodler

    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.

    Obama's comments on marijuana are his first following Colorado and Washington voters' approval of Nov. 7 ballot measures that legalize the recreational use and sale of pot in defiance of federal law.

    Marijuana, or cannabis, remains classified under the Controlled Substances Act as a Schedule I narcotic whose cultivation, distribution, possession and use are criminal acts. It's in the same category as heroin, LSD and "Ecstasy," all deemed to have high potential for abuse.
    Obama told Walters he does not – "at this point" – support widespread legalization of marijuana. But he cited shifting public opinion and limited government resources as reasons to find a middle ground on punishing use of the drug.

    "This is a tough problem, because Congress has not yet changed the law," Obama said. "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?"

    The president said he has asked Attorney General Eric Holder and the Justice Department to examine the legal questions surrounding conflicting state and federal laws on drugs.

    "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 Wednesday of the review underway.

    As a politician, Obama has always opposed legalizing marijuana and downplayed his personal history with the substance.

    Obama wrote in his 1995 memoir, "Dreams from My Father," that he would smoke pot regularly with his high school buddies who formed a "club of disaffection." The group was known as the "Choom Gang," says Obama biographer David Maraniss.

    "There are a bunch of things I did that I regret when I was a kid," Obama told Walters. "My attitude is, substance abuse generally is not good for our kids, not good for our society.
    "I want to discourage drug use," he added.

    While the administration has not prioritized prosecutions of marijuana users and small-scale distributors in states where it's legal, it has not ceased prosecutions altogether. The Justice Department has continued raids on pot providers – including in states where they are legal – in an approach that experts say is more aggressive than Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush.

    "I never made a commitment that somehow we were going to give carte blanche to large-scale producers and operators of marijuana – and the reason is, because it's against federal law," Obama told "Rolling Stone" in an interview earlier this year.

    It "is a murky area," Obama told the magazine, "where you have large-scale, commercial operations that may supply medical marijuana users, but in some cases may also be supplying recreational users. In that situation, we put the Justice Department in a very difficult place if we're telling them, 'This is supposed to be against the law, but we want you to turn the other way.' That's not something we're going to do."

    Obama and the Office of National Drug Control Policy say the negative impacts of widespread marijuana legalization loom large. Legalization would lower the price of "weed," thereby fueling its use and triggering more widespread negative health effects and subsequent costs of care, the administration says in its official policy position. Officials also say legalization would do little to curb drug violence or eliminate cartels.

    "When you're talking about drug kingpins, folks involved in violence, people who are peddling hard drugs to our kids and our neighborhoods that are devastated, there is no doubt we need to go after those folks hard," said Obama.

    "It makes sense for us to look at how we can make sure that our kids are discouraged from using drugs and engaging in substance abuse generally," he said. "There's more work we can do on the public health side and the treatment side."

    Colorado and Washington are the first states to legalize recreational use of marijuana, presenting a fresh challenge for the Obama Justice Department to navigate in a second term.

    While public opinion has shifted toward legalization over the past few years, Americans remain divided about the personal use of pot. Fifty percent of American adults oppose legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use, while 48 percent would support such a measure, according to a November ABC News/Washington Post poll. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 points.

    Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat who personally opposed legalization, on Monday formally approved the voter-backed amendment to the state constitution legalizing recreational use of marijuana. The measure will allow individuals to possess one ounce of pot and up to six marijuana plants and licensed stores to sell marijuana starting next year.

    Washington State last week officially became the first to allow recreational use of marijuana when a voter-approved ballot measure took effect.

    In both states, pot use remains illegal in public. Eighteen states have approved the use of marijuana for medicinal use with a doctor's order. Federal law still prohibits all use and sale of marijuana.

    ABC News' Jason Ryan contributed to this report.



  1. Basoodler
    Re: Obama: Marijuana Not High Priority

    Parsing Obama's Words on Legalizing Marijuana

    Anytime the president answers a question about marijuana and federal marijuana policy, as he did in a recent interview with ABC's Barbara Walters that airs tonight, it makes sense to parse his words.

    Four things stand out in ABC's press release about the president's comments.

    The first is that he responded in a serious and substantive tone, which contrasted with the jokingly dismissive ways in which he answered questions about marijuana legalization just a few years ago. The ballot initiative victories in Colorado and Washington gave him no choice this time. Marijuana legalization is now a political reality.

    The second was his comment -- highlighted by ABC in its news release -- that 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," he said. That statement is not news. Federal law enforcement officials have never prioritized going after users of marijuana. Obama has said much the same regarding medical consumers of marijuana, but that begs the question of whether consumers will be able to make their purchases from legal or only illegal sources.

    The third was when Obama told Walters he does not -- "at this point" -- support widespread legalization of marijuana. The caveat "at this point" sounds a lot like how he responded to questions about legalizing gay marriage - until he finally decided it was time to publicly support it. Obama cited shifting public opinion and essentially made clear that this is not an issue on which he wants to provide leadership so long as public opinion is split and Congress unlikely to do anything constructive.

    The fourth, and most substantive, comment was the following: "This is a tough problem, because Congress has not yet changed the law," Obama said. "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?" What stands out here are the words about the "need to have... a conversation" and the fact that he is framing the conflict between federal and state law as a question to be resolved as opposed to one in which it is simply assumed that federal marijuana prohibition trumps all.

    What remains unclear is whom the president sees as the participants in that conversation. Earlier this week Attorney General Holder said, in response to questions after a speech at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, "I would expect the policy pronouncement that we're going to make will be done relatively soon." All indications suggest that deliberations about the administration's position are being conducted primarily by and among federal law enforcement officials, many of whom appear most comfortable reciting the mantra that "it's all illegal under federal law" as grounds for dismissing any further conversation.

    That is why the letter sent last week by Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to drug czar Gil Kerlikowske is especially significant. "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?" he asked, and then stated that "legislative options exist to resolve the differences between federal and state law in this area and end the uncertainty that residents of Colorado and Washington now face."

    Voters in Washington and Colorado did more than just make history last month by voting to end their states' marijuana prohibition laws and attempt instead to regulate marijuana as a legal commodity. They performed a national service by catapulting the national conversation about marijuana policy to a new level of urgency and political significance. President Obama is right about the need for a conversation. He needs to ensure that federal officials engage in good faith and with due deference to the fiscal, moral and public safety and health arguments in favor of legally regulating marijuana rather than persisting with a costly and ineffective prohibitionist policy.

    Ethan Nadelmann

    Executive Director, Drug Policy Alliance

  2. Basoodler
    This is exactly how I took it. His tone points toward a give and take rather than government action on the two states. He can't publicly say its OK to break federal law. That would be a mandate to break the law he represents federal law and this soft of a response is reassuring.

  3. Basoodler
    Reaction to Obama's new marijuana statements

    From Tom Angell, Chairman of Marijuana Majority

    "The president's statement about not targeting individual marijuana users doesn't mark a shift in policy. The federal government rarely goes after individual users. The real question is whether the Obama administration will try to prevent voter-approved marijuana sales systems from being enacted or if they will force individual users to buy marijuana from the black market, where much of the profits go to cartels and gangs that kill people.

    "The president also tries to unjustifiably pass the buck to Congress, claiming that there's not much he can do to change federal policy on marijuana because 'Congress has not yet changed the law.' The fact is, the executive branch was granted the power to unilaterally reschedule marijuana when Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. The president should lead on this issue instead of deferring to Congress, a branch of government that he probably knows better than most isn't exactly prone to getting a whole lot done these days.

    "One positive thing to take away from this interview is that the president couched his opposition to marijuana legalization by saying he doesn't support it 'at this point.' That could indicate his position on this issue may 'evolve' to catch up with the majority of voters who now support letting states set their own marijuana laws, not unlike how his position on marriage equality 'evolved' as it became clear the what direction the public was moving in."

  4. Basoodler
    Obama on Marijuana Legalization: If Not Now, When?
    President Obama's recent comments about marijuana legalization, noted this morning by Mike Riggs, hit a familiar theme: Going after newly legal recreational users in Colorado and Washington, he said, is not a good use of the federal government's scarce resources. He and his underlings have repeatedly said the same thing about medical marijuana users. But going after pot smokers has never been a "top priority"—or any priority at all—for the Drug Enforcement Administration, which eschews cases involving small amounts of marijuana. Those are handled by state and local police, who account for 99 percent of marijuana arrests. So leaving individual users alone does not suggest that Obama is any more enlightened, compassionate, tolerant, or rational than his predecessors. The new aspect of the policy announced by Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder with respect to medical marijuana was that they promised prosecutorial forbearance not only for patients but also for their suppliers, provided they complied with state law. Obama has conspicuously failed to deliver on that promise, cracking down on medical marijuana dispensaries more aggressively than George W. Bush. So even if he said it is not a good use of Justice Department resources to target state-licensed growers and retailers, you would have to take it with a shakerful of salt. In the event, he did not address suppliers at all in his ABC News interview with Barbara Walters.

    As a politician," ABC News says, "Obama has always opposed legalizing marijuana." That's not quite true, since as a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2004 Obama told a group of students at Northwestern University that "we need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws." That is literally what Colorado and Washington have done, removing all criminal penalties for possessing up to an ounce and for growing or selling marijuana in accordance with state regulatons. (Colorado also has decriminalized home cultivation of up to six plants and noncommercial transfers of up to an ounce.) It is not clear exactly what sort of decriminalization Obama had in mind, but presumably he meant at least that users should not be subject to criminal penalties. That position proved inconvenient during his presidential campaign, when he went back and forth on the question of whether he still supported marijuana decriminalization. At one point, a spokesman said Obama had "always" favored that policy and had accidentally indicated otherwise during a debate by raising his hand in response to a question he had misunderstood. A week later, he retracted that correction.

    What does Obama say now?

    He told Walters he does not support legalizing marijuana "at this point." He said something similar last April, when he told Jimmy Fallon, "We’re not going to have legalized weed anytime soon." Well, he was wrong about that, since Colorado and Washingtton legalized marijuana just seven months later. But maybe he meant that the federal ban on marijuana will not be repealed anytime soon. Putting these two comments together, I surmise that Obama will endorse marijuana legalization after it happens. Or maybe, like Bill Clinton, he is just waiting to leave office to express his actual opinion about the war on drugs, assuming he has one.

    In the meantime, Obama says, "what we're going to need to have is a conversation about how...you reconcile a federal law that still says marijuana is a federal offense and state laws that say that it's legal." He calls it "a tough problem," because "I head up the executive branch; we're supposed to be carrying out laws." In truth, there is no need to "reconcile" anything; the states are under no obligation to punish every action Congress considers a crime. The question is how gung-ho the Obama administration will be in going after marijuana growers and distributors who are no longer subject to state penalties. The intensity of its response, which will help determine whether Colorado and Washington have the freedom they should to chart their own courses, is completely within Obama's discretion.

    On Wednesday, ABC notes, Attorney General Holder said, "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." The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs requires signatories to enact criminal penalties for the nonmedical production, possession, and distribution of cannabis. But that requirement is subject to "constitutional limitations," which in the United States bar the federal government from demanding that the states ape its drug laws. Does the treaty compel the federal government to crack down on state-licensed marijuana suppliers in Colorado and Washington? Apparently not. Since the 1970s, the Dutch government, which is also a signatory, has nevertheless managed to tolerate retail sales of marijuana, which remain technically illegal. Similarly, the U.S. government could maintain its ban on marijuana while tolerating sales by state-licensed pot shops. Obama just needs a little Dutch courage.

    Addendum: Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance parses Obama's words at The Huffington Post, seeing hope in the fact that the president is no longer laughing at questions about marijuana and in his call for a "conversation" rather than a federal diktat.


    (Opposing viewpoints for depth)
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