WASHINGTON — For backers of legalized marijuana in Washington and Colorado, it isn’t what President Obama said — it’s what he didn’t say.
In an interview with ABC News, Obama said that recreational pot smoking in the two states that have legalized it is not a major concern for his administration.
“We’ve got bigger fish to fry,” Obama said. “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.”
Proponents of recreational marijuana use welcomed the president’s comments, but they stress that he didn’t address the bigger question: Will federal prosecutors and drug agents also look the other way?
Pot advocates say they are leery, since previous statements from the administration that it wouldn’t go after individual medical-marijuana users were followed by crackdowns on dispensaries and others who grew and sold the pot. The Justice Department has declined to say whether it would file a lawsuit to block the laws, but has said marijuana is still illegal under federal law.
Alison Holcomb, who led Washington’s legalization drive, said that while Obama’s statements did not specifically address many concerns, they do offer signs of hope.
“He did not say that the federal government is going to crack down on production or rush in to stop what’s happening, and that’s good news,” she said.
Further, she said, Obama acknowledged the need for congressional action to resolve the tension between state and federal law.
“The fact that more than a month has passed (since the election) and the federal government is still talking about how to respond is good news,” she said. “It sounds like they are going to take their time and remain open to options that will not frustrate Washington voters.”
Tom Angell, leader of the group Marijuana Majority, which ran the legalization campaign in Colorado, agreed that Obama’s comment’s did not address the most pressing matters.
“The question that remains is whether the consumers should purchase marijuana in state-regulated, taxpaying businesses, or from cartels and gangs in the underground market.”
Angell said Obama need not wait for Congress to act but could use his executive power to reclassify marijuana as a legal drug.
Obama, who has admitted to regularly smoking pot in high school, told ABC News’ Barbara Walters that he does not support general legalization “at this point.” It’s the same position he’s taken throughout his political career, despite his own history.
Holcomb said the words Obama chose in his ABC News interview could indicate he is open to a change in position.
Joe Megyesy, a spokesman for a marijuana-legalization group in Colorado, said Obama’s comments left unanswered many questions about how pot regulation in the two states will work. Even if individual users aren’t charged with crimes, pot producers and sellers could be subject to prosecution, civil forfeiture and other legal roadblocks, he said.
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, Megyesy said.
Under Washington’s new law, adults 21 and over can possess as much as 1 ounce of marijuana legally, and the state has been directed to begin licensing marijuana grow farms and retail stores next year. The law does not affect medical marijuana.
Colorado’s marijuana measure requires lawmakers to allow commercial pot sales, and a state task force that will write those regulations meets Monday.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, in a speech Wednesday, said he would announce a policy on the new state laws “relatively soon.”
That policy will be far more important than Obama’s comments, said a spokesman for the state agency charged with creating a legal marijuana market in Washington.
“They could have stepped up with an injunction or waited until we issued licenses to go in and do a seize,” said Brian Smith, a spokesman for the Washington State Liquor Control Board. “It appears now from the president’s remarks that they are going to provide clarification and guidelines to the states, and we are looking forward to that.”
The Liquor Control Board, which has been regulating alcohol for 78 years, now has a year to adopt rules for the fledgling pot industry.
Law-enforcement officials in Washington and Colorado have also been awaiting word on how the federal government might proceed now that the states have approved recreational marijuana.
“After the passage of I-502, we were all looking to the federal government as to which direction they were leaning for enforcement or other actions,” King County Sheriff John Urquhart said Friday. “It’s good to get an indication earlier rather than later.”
In a statement, Washington’s Gov.-elect Jay Inslee said, “Several questions remain, but this is a very positive start. I believe there is good reason to be confident that our state will move forward.”