Photo: Official White House photo by Pete Souza
President Barack Obama said he doesn’t intend to crack down on marijuana users in Colorado and Washington, where recreational use is now legal. But marijuana reform advocates are only cautiously optimistic about his statement, because they’ve heard this kind of talk from the president before.”We’ve got bigger fish to fry,” Obama told ABC News’ Barbara Walters on Friday. “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 2008, then Senator Obama similarly said he was “not going to be using Justice Department resources to circumvent state laws” on medical marijuana, and Attorney General Eric Holder confirmed that this would be the federal policy following Obama’s election. But what actually followed was a widespread crackdown on medical marijuana dispensaries led by U.S. Attorneys.
Obama clarified his 2008 statement in an April 2012 interview with Rolling Stone, saying, “What I specifically said was that we were not going to prioritise prosecutions of persons who are using medical marijuana. 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.”
In about a year, there are likely to be large-scale producers of marijuana for recreational use in two states, and it’s still against federal law. So while Obama’s comments may be seen as an olive branch toward the marijuana legalization movement, precedent suggests that his administration may still try to prevent marijuana stores from opening.
Though it is still unknown how the Department of Justice will ultimately respond to commercial marijuana sales, Holder recently said he expects to make a policy pronouncement “relatively soon.”
‘As Good as We Can Expect’
Despite the Obama administration’s track record with medical marijuana, Keith Stroup, founder of the National organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), sees the president’s recent comments as a good sign for marijuana advocates.
“It’s about as good as we can expect for the moment,” Stroup said. “It’s very reminiscent of the way he talked about medical users, and it’s a significant step forward that he’s now using the same language to talk about recreational users. I’ve never seen Obama suggest that arresting recreational smokers was a low priority before.”
“Just a few years ago, the president laughed at a question about legalizing marijuana. He treated it as if it were a fringe idea. This time he did quite the opposite. He treated this as a serious matter.”
In 2009, President Obama hosted an online town hall meeting and noted that one of the most popular questions was whether he thought marijuana legalization could generate tax revenues and create jobs. With a laugh, he said, “I don’t know what this says about the online audience.”
“The answer is no,” he continued, “I don’t think that’s a good strategy to grow our economy.”
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.