Obama says he won’t prosecute pot smokers in two states

President Barack Obama will say during a taped TV interview on Friday night that he is opposed to prosecuting recreational marijuana users in Colorado and Washington, in his first public comments on legalization in those two states.

Official White House photo.

The president, however, will leave open the door for federal authorities to arrest people who grow, transport, and sell marijuana in those two states, despite new state laws to the contrary.

The legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington has cast a new light on the issue of states’ rights. In one recent poll, two-thirds of Americans supported the rights of the two states to make their own laws.

“In Washington and Colorado, you’ve seen the voters speak on this issue. As it is, the federal government has a lot to do when it comes to criminal prosecutions,” the president said in an interview with Barbara Walters.

“It does not make sense from a prioritization point of view for us to focus on recreational users in a state that has said under state law it’s already legal,” Obama said to Walters.

In reality, federal officials rarely prosecute for personal use of marijuana, including for medical reasons. The drug is considered a Schedule 1 controlled substance, but federal raids in recent years have focused on distributors in the 18 states where medical marijuana is legal, under state law.

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President Obama said personally that he is against legalized marijuana, and that final resolution of the conflict between the two states and the federal government may come down to Congress.

“This is a tough problem, because Congress has not yet changed the law,” Obama told Walters, in an advance story from ABC. “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?”

President Obama has Attorney General Eric Holder reviewing the legal questions about the two states’ laws, including their possible effects on relations with countries fighting the “war on drugs” with the U.S.

Colorado quietly made the private consumption of marijuana legal on Monday, as Governor John Hickenlooper officially added the law to his state’s constitution. Washington made a similar move before Colorado, but with more fanfare.

Currently, public opinion is growing in support of the laws in Colorado and Washington. A recent Gallup Poll says that about 64 percent of those polled nationally believe the federal government shouldn’t overrule the new laws in Colorado and Washington. People were evenly split about having legal marijuana in general.

Republicans and Democrats are actually discussing a legislative solution to the marijuana standoff if the Obama administration doesn’t act.

Representative Diana DeGette (D-Colorado) has introduced a House bill that would allow the state laws about marijuana to pre-empt the federal statute.

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