Libertarians rejoice — at least for a moment. The federal government has “bigger fish to fry” than pursuing marijuana violators, Barack Obama told Barbara Walters in an interview that will air later tonight, but which ABC teased this morning. But note carefully the construct used by Obama in answering the question about what will happen to states that legalized marijuana use last month:
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.
That may be good news in those two states — if the Obama administration had been targeting “recreational users” before the election. They weren’t; the DEA and FBI had targeted medicinal-marijuana distributors, even in Colorado and California, where such sales were legalized by voters in prior elections. The enforcement of laws barring recreational use has always been a state and local issue. This sounds less like a policy shift and more like political Kabuki.
Obama then blamed Congress for continued enforcement of existing federal laws against distribution of marijuana:
“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.
Ahem. This administration, and specifically Holder, didn’t seem to have a problem conducting an end-around the 4th Amendment in March without involving Congress, nor in bypassing Congress on several aspects of immigration enforcement over the summer. The Obama administration has more leeway in determining how best to spend its War On Drugs funding, which means they could have chosen to ignore openly-operating medicinal marijuana operations in states that had legalized them had they wanted to do so.
This statement will generate some hope among legalization advocates that the Obama administration will lighten up on marijuana enforcement, but they shouldn’t get their hopes too, er, high on that score.