Backers of Washington’s new pot law say they’re encouraged but not completely convinced by President Barack Obama’s conciliatory statements about marijuana on the Barbara Walters show.
“There’s some signal of hope,” said Alison Holcomb, the ACLU attorney who led the successful I-502 campaign.
But Holcomb added that it will take more than the president to clarify the issues around legal pot.
“We ultimately need a legislative resolution,” she said.
When Walters asked Obama if he thought marijuana should be legalized, the President said he would not go that far.
But he added, “It does not make sense from a prioritization point of view for us to focus on recreational drug users in a state that has already said that under state law, that’s legal.”
Governor-elect Jay Inslee, who did not support I-502 during the campaign, issued a statement Friday saying, “The President’s statement is welcome news to a state where voters have clearly expressed the same sentiment.”
“Several questions remain” Inslee said, “but this is a very positive start. I believe there is good reason to be confident that our state will move forward.”
Officials at the Washington State Liquor Control Board, which is working to develop a framework for the state’s new cannabis industry, said Obama’s comments provide some clarification on the issue but at this point won’t change how the board is moving forward with its planning.
Voters in both Washington and Colorado approved marijuana legalization laws last month, even though the federal government still classifies marijuana as a dangerous drug and makes it a crime to sell or possess even tiny amounts of the plant.
“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 it’s legal?” Obama told ABC News in an interview with Walters.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said his panel would consider legislation early next year that could ease federal law for marijuana possession.
“One option would be to amend the Federal Controlled Substances Act to allow possession of up to an ounce of marijuana, at least in jurisdictions where it is legal under state law,” Leahy said in a letter to R. Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Leahy asked Kerlikowske, the administration’s so-called drug czar, “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.”
Leahy said Obama’s comments “reflect common sense. In a time of tight budget constraints, I want law enforcement to focus on violent crime. But now that we have a gap between federal and state laws on marijuana, we need more information and a wider discussion about where our priorities should be.”
Critics of the federal drug laws saw the comments from Obama and Leahy as a sign that Washington, D.C.’s rigid opposition to marijuana may be ending.
“It’s a tentative step in the right direction,” Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said of Obama’s statement. “He said we need a ‘conversation,’ and that’s very promising. This sounds a lot like what he said about gay marriage a couple of years ago.”
Nadelmann said he would watch to see if federal law enforcement officials at the Justice Department insist on an aggressive anti-marijuana policy, despite the milder words from the president and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.
Recent polls have shown the American public is just about evenly split on whether personal use of small amounts of marijuana should be legalized. The initiatives to legalize recreational use of marijuana in Washington and Colorado easily won passage Nov. 6.
Obama said he has a duty to follow the law as it now exists. “This is a tough problem because Congress has not yet changed the law,” he told ABC. “I head up the executive branch. We’re supposed to be carrying out the laws.”firstname.lastname@example.org 253-597-8693 The Associated Press contributed to this report.