As Charles mentioned earlier, President Obama has manned up to finally talk about Washington State's and Colorado's new laws that legalize marijuana. "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 told Barbara Walters.
A lot of people will take these words as big news. And in the sense that these two successful initiatives made the president of the United States of Drug War Fighting America say that, hey, it's basically fine if millions of adults in those states smoke pot, then it is pretty big news. This hasn't happened before. But this isn't the federal government ceding power to the states on pot. And more specifically, it's not a long-term promise to leave these states alone when they regulate the marijuana industry.
Mostly, this is the same-old, same-old schtick.
First, Obama is only talking about marijuana use. Even though some media yakkers have spent the last month trying to fabricate stories about the feds coming in to bust potheads, that's always been a paper tiger. The feds don't handle marijuana possession cases. So as a practical matter, any state conflict with federal law on pot possession—which people yell about like it's a real issue—has always been a red herring. Obama is essentially confirming that it's a red herring.
Second, Obama's statement is basically the same thing the US Department of Justice has said for years: Pot cases, even those that involve moderate grow operations and sales, simply aren't their priority. Back in 2009, David W. Ogden, deputy attorney general of the DOJ, told US attorneys this: "As a general matter, pursuit of these priorities should not focus federal resources in your States on individuals..." Although that particular statement concerned medical marijuana, the federal government makes no legal distinction between medical and non-medical pot. And last month on recreational pot, the US Attorney for Western Washington said they were looking into the matter. And now? Obama is saying he's still looking into it more and it's still not a priority to pursue these cases.
You know, until it is a priority to pursue these cases.
Remember, sometimes it has been a big priority for Obama to make medical marijuana raids. And perhaps it will be a priority for him to file an injunction to stop WA and CO from issuing licenses and permitting a government-regulated pot businesses. He could do that tomorrow. He could do when the rules are finished next year. He could do it when the first businesses are open.
Or Obama may stay out of it altogether. We'll have to see.
If there's something to be thrilled about here, it's this: The highest orders of government are carefully deliberating this issue. They're finally taking it seriously. As Obama pointed out, "This is a tough problem, because Congress has not yet changed the law." That's not a knee-jerk, I'm-the-decider-and-I'm-gonna-crack-down answer. Saying he wants to "examine" the situation, Obama is inviting a top-level discussion and, possibly, telegraphing a nuanced response.
Obama is, if nothing else, encouraging more conversation about marijuana legalization instead of promising to shut it down. And the more people talk about this issue, the more it wins.