Obama Promises Not to Make Prosecution of Recreational Marijuana Users a “Top Priority”

Change we can believe in — still waiting (Source: Wikimedia)

Presumably, it is comfortable to know that marijuana use, whether medicinal or recreational, is not a top priority of the Obama presidency. Whether that news gets down to the lower levels of the Justice Department, where the actual arrests and prosecutions occur, is still to be seen.

Barbara Walters at ABC News interviewed Barack Obama on the marijuana issue:

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.

There might be some comfort in that, but there remains a problem. The Justice Department is not targeting medical marijuana users, but it is going after dispensaries. Reading between the lines, it sounds like the President is saying that the same policy for medical marijuana dispensaries is going to apply to marijuana for recreational use. In other words, if you are considering a new storefront business venture selling pot in Colorado or Washington, then expect to spend some time in a federal penitentiary.

The part I find incongruent, almost hypocritical, in the President’s argument is his preference for passing the buck when it comes to marijuana.

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?”

Congress also passed the Defense of Marriage Act and has not repealed it either. Yet the Obama administration decided not to enforce it because it interpreted parts of it to be unconstitutional. For a President who claims to be heading up the executive branch, he stepped on the toes of both the legislative and judicial branches with that action. It’s not that different from what other presidents have done. It is different from what he promised as a candidate in 2008.

Obama could decide not enforce the federal marijuana laws for a number of reasons. Instead, he takes the weaker position of promising not to make it a priority. That’s not convincing since he has said the same thing about medical marijuana and has gone after it with a fervor that makes George W. Bush’s policies look laid back.

With a majority of Americans favoring legalization, Obama could take a position that most of his supporters back. Instead, he is aligning with social conservative and law enforcement factions that think the last 50 years of incarcerating millions and spending billions on the drug war is business as usual.

Maybe at the end of his second term Obama will find enlightenment on this issue as he did with same-sex marriage. In the near future, that political courage is likely to remain absent.

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